Welcoming the Stranger, By Rabbi Janie Hodgetts
There is no better ritual to educate and engage people unfamiliar with the richness of Jewish traditions than the seder. As an interfaith chaplain and Rabbi in residence at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to care for the spiritual needs of patients and staff and to teach people of different faiths about Jewish holidays, symbols and values. Each year, I add something new in our programming like Lunch in the Sukkah with the Rabbi or Play Dreidel with the Rabbi. This year I led a model seder primarily for staff who have never attended one and connected some of the themes and symbols of that ritual with patient care.
The Miriam Hospital has a unique history. Through the work of Jewish women in the early 1920’s, $80,000 was raised in four weeks through door-to-door collections to create “a place to care for the indigent sick of the Jewish faith,” and a place where Jewish physicians could practice medicine. In 1926 the hospital opened and quickly expanded its mission to caring for patients of all faiths. Over time, both the staff and patient population of the hospital have changed considerably, reflecting the shifting demographics of Providence and surrounding RI communities, with Jews becoming a smaller percentage of the total patient population. Despite this fact, Jewish philanthropists continue to provide a lot of support to the Miriam, and the value of honoring the Jewish heritage of the hospital is written in its mission statement.
How do you honor the Jewish heritage of the hospital when most of the staff and patients are not Jewish? One way is through the practice of Jewish values, which I believe are well embedded in the culture of the hospital but are not explicitly named or attributed to the hospital’s Jewish roots. This is a welcoming and caring place to work -- which is why I am willing to shlep two hours each day to commute there and back to Boston! Chesed, rachamim, kavod, derech eretz, tzedakah, recognition of b’tzelem elokim are expressed by personnel at all levels of the organization. But, it makes no sense to say we honor Miriam’s Jewish heritage, when most of the staff do not know why we provide matzah for Jewish patients or place a menorah in our lobby.
Training to become a rabbi at Hebrew College, with its strong commitment to interfaith activities and learning, plus participating in courses, celebrations, and discussions with Andover Theological Seminary students during my studies here helped me see the value and pleasure of teaching people who aren’t Jewish about my heritage. As a HCRS student, entering Jewish texts that had been off limits to me as a girl growing up in an Orthodox environment gave me the direct experience of being welcomed into a foreign world and offered navigation tools to access its riches. With these kinds of experiences, I am quite comfortable welcoming people who aren’t Jewish as well as people who are Jewish but are unfamiliar with Judaism to participate in inclusive celebrations and learning opportunities. The seder for non-seder goers at the Miriam Hospital was more ambitious than some of my other Jewish programs but flowed from my training at HCRS.
Given this group of participants’ background and time constraints, I selected a Haggadah titled The 30minute Seder for the event. The 30Minute-Seder company generously provided us 40 haggadot at no charge to the hospital . The seder, with a light Pesachdich lunch, took a little over an hour. The participants included a diverse cross section of hospital personnel that included the volunteer information desk staff to the Executive Director of the hospital. I also invited a few “token” Jews from the hospital to help me with the Mah Nishtanah and Dayenu, including a couple of doctors on our staff. Most attendees chose to wear a kippah which I offered from my personal collection, including the small Red Sox one from my son’s childhood that the Head of Nutrition Services wore since that day was the first Red Sox game of the season!
I felt that the best way for this seder to connect strangers to the ritual was to link some of the explicit seder metaphors to the hospital’s work of patient care. I talked about how much we take seder for granted in our lives in contrast to the disruption of order for our patients and their families. Of course, the bitterness of enslavement and being in Mitzrayim is a common experience of people who are ill. As health care providers we are like the parsley in bringing light and hope to touch the tears of patients. The journey to freedom, particularly spiritual freedom tends to begin with brokenness, and this is something we encounter ourselves and frequently with patients. As we were leaning while we drank one of the cups of grape juice, I made the connection that this mobility is also something we take for granted. Our patients are often constrained by having to be perfectly still for radiation treatments, CAT scans and blood draws, as well as losing control over their bodies due to the spread of a disease.
When we were washing and drying each others’ hands with the basins of water on the table, I spoke about water and Miriam. Most of the people at the seder had never connected the prophetess with the name of the hospital. While some knew the biblical stories from Sunday School, they were unfamiliar with midrash and the well which traveled with the people on their journey through the wilderness during Miriam’s life. The Miriam hospital is like this well in that it provides a fountain of healing and renewal, and extends life for people who are struggling with survival. Some participants told me afterwards that this story helped them feel even prouder that they were associated with a hospital named after such a person.
One of the most rewarding moments for me came after the seder in an e-mail from one of the nurses who attended. She told me that her mother’s adoptive mother had told her that her grandmother had been Jewish. This nurse had been trying to recover her grandmother’s history to no avail but the seder helped her feel more connected to her grandmother and to her Jewish roots. We never know until we welcome strangers how much we may share in common as human beings and how we all need to be part of a larger community of meaning.
***Rabbi Jane Hodgett is is a member of the multifaith spiritual care team at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., where she provides pastoral care to patients and staff members of all faiths and serves as an in-house resource to respond to questions surrounding Judaism and the particular needs of Jewish patients. Come join Jane to hear more about Hebrew College, where she received her ordination, on Monday, April 23 at 7:00PM. The community will gather with dessert to hear from community leaders about the impact of the institution and its role in our community. To RSVP for this free event, please call 617-559-8632 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.