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Friday, December 8, 2023 - 25 Kislev 5784
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Two Faiths, One Mission

Besides the big problem, there was a little one. The big problem faced by a Jewish couple from New York was the critical illness of their teenage son—happily, he’s now fully recovered after hospital treatment. The smaller problem stemmed from a religious stricture.

Hebrew law prohibits driving in most instances on Shabbat, the day of rest, which extends from sunset on Friday until Saturday night, and Orthodox Jews along with many others of the faith take that literally. A family member is permitted to drive an ill person to the hospital, but once the ill person is cared for medically, the relative is prohibited from driving home—thus he or she may be “stranded” in the vicinity without lodging. Luckily, the family found they had no need to fret.

In December 2012, Saint Peter’s University Hospital, a Roman Catholic institution, joined forces with the Chabad House, a 90,000-square-foot Jewish center at Rutgers University (the largest of its kind on any college campus in the country) to solve this kind of problem. Thus was born the Bikur Cholim Room, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite reserved as temporary shelter for the visiting kin of Jewish patients.

“Bikur cholim refers to the mitzvah, or commandment, of extending aid to those who are sick,” explains Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of the Chabad House. Three kosher meals a day are also provided, all paid for through contributions. “Those distraught parents remained with their ailing son for a full month, just as anxious husbands can stay near wives in labor,” says Rabbi Carlebach. “What a blessing it is to help keep family lives intact.”

The father of 13 children ranging in age from 10 to 34, Rabbi Carlebach and his wife, Rivkah, have been dedicated to developing and directing youth activities and educational programs since Chabad House at Rutgers was founded in 1978. The facility now boasts a dorm with separate quarters for male and female undergrads looking to live within a community of like-minded faithful. A kosher dining hall can accommodate up to 700 individuals while daily classes offer Torah study, yet the center is open to people of all faiths.

“During Hurricane Sandy, ours was one of the few buildings that retained electricity,” recalls the 57-year-old rabbi. “Students came to recharge phones, or just to hang out with peers.”

The Chabad House offers special courses to sensitize members of the hospital staff to its residents’ different cultural beliefs and practices—with sometimes surprising results. “A Jewish doctor came to one of our sessions, and he said he learned more in an hour from us than he had throughout Hebrew school!” recalls the Ocean Township-based rabbi, laughing.

On Hanukkah, the Chabad House installs 65 menorahs throughout New Jersey, with the hospital receiving its own impressive eight-foot-tall candelabrum— naturally, since many of the hospital’s patients, physicians and staff are Jewish. The cooperation between Chabad House and Saint Peter’s speaks eloquently of the understanding between faiths—and of the role faith itself can play, when illness strikes, as a comfort rather than a barrier.

“Ours is the most beautiful partnership anyone could dream of,” says Rabbi Carlebach. “The hospital’s ever-growing popularity is a testament to the medical marvels Saint Peter’s accomplishes daily, and it’s a place where any Jewish person will feel comfortable.” —F.M.



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