Delivering Love, Meals, Hope and Support When Cancer Touches Our Lives
“Sure, we can afford to order pizza for the kids for dinner when I am feeling at my lowest from chemotherapy. We could call Domino’s and in no time there would be a pizza on the table. But my kids already know that Domino’s delivers! I am so grateful that the members of my congregation bring meals for our family. I want my kids to know that our congregation delivers and that they bring much more than food. When I am gone I want them to know for the rest of their lives they can turn to their Jewish community, to their tradition and to good friends for nurturing, support and caring.”
This perceptive, brave and generous young mother living with advanced cancer was explaining why having a congregation which was truly a Caring Community meant so much to her. In fact, she was a member of that congregation’s caring committee and when she felt well she helped to bring welcome baskets containing Jewish lullaby CDs, tiny candlesticks, a mezuzah, books and loving messages to families who had new babies; she helped make phone calls to people who were isolated; she provided lifts to people who might not otherwise be able to come to congregational events. The committee was guided in their work by members of their clergy, mental health professionals from within the congregation and by the resources of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Right around her 65th birthday a funny, compassionate and brilliant member of another congregation celebrated her adult bat mitzvah. Also living with cancer, she had looked forward to and prepared for this day as she went through experimental treatment in a distant state. Congregants had recorded the songs and prayers of the Shabbat morning worship group to which she belonged so that she could listen to them and feel strengthened even when she could not be in the chapel with her friends. Now, returned and in remission, she was about to lead the service. Her rabbi presented her with a special gift from the congregation, a tallit purchased in Jerusalem especially for her. Her friends had sewn narrow ribbons on the inside of the tallit and on these each member of the worship group had written messages of love and encouragement in indelible ink. As the rabbi wrapped her in the tallit she and each person in the room knew that each time she would wear it she would feel surrounded by the love of God and of her community. Communities of caring and connection are not formed and sustained only by the work of committees and clergy. They are woven each day and each week by devotion, creativity and shared values that emerge as groups of people led by deeply engaged clergy gather each week to study, socialize, share meals, pray, laugh and sometimes cry together over the course of many weeks, months and years.
In yet another congregation the person living with cancer was a gentle, athletic, determined and much loved ten-year-old boy . When he couldn’t attend either secular or religious school or participate in sports for long periods of time his classmates and teammates went home with questions and anxieties, realizing for the first time that someone as young as they could have a life threatening illness. Parents and staff wondered how to help them feel less helpless and realized that Jewish tradition offered a guide. The mitzvah of Bikkur Holim obligates and encourages us to visit the sick but this child was sometimes immunosuppressed and so had to be isolated from friends who might inadvertently bring infection. The teachers in the religious school helped the children to draw pictures for him and to write letters so that they could visit him daily without subjecting him to risk. His schoolwork was brought to him along with games and stuffed animals chosen just for him. The children recited misheberach prayers for healing during their religious school tefillah . Religious school class parents worked with the congregation’s Caring Committee and with the PTA at the secular school so that carpooling of siblings could be provided, meals could be brought for his siblings and the parent who remained at home when the child went into the hospital. Members of other faith communities, Jewish and Gentile, worked together with the Interfaith Clergy Council to hold a healing service attended by community members of all faiths. It was not just the children of the community who learned that when we feel helpless, and even when we cannot make all of the suffering go away, there is still so much we can do. We can work together so no person of any age and no family need ever feel alone even at the hardest of times. There is sometimes a cure, sometimes not, but there is healing in knowing our community never forgets us and never leaves us to manage alone.
Another congregation maintains a freezer filled with meals prepared by congregants available to anyone who has someone in their family in chemotherapy. Others host cancer support groups. Some organize congregants to help with food shopping, lifts to doctor visits, and some hold fundraising drives to help with expenses and with research for a cure. Some host screenings to find bone marrow donors. Some have created collections of liturgy, meditations and poetry that are strengthening to people who are ill or in pain. Some hold healing services.
Congregations that are truly communities of caring and connection really can be places that deliver, that envelop us in love, that provide practical and spiritual help and that let us know we are not alone when cancer touches our lives. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a quarterly newsletter on Communities of Caring to learn about what other congregations are doing and to discover ways of creating similar responses in your own congregation.