The Human Spirit: For Our Good Health
May 27, 2011
Barbara Sofer , THE
is a modest community project, nothing grandiose, but meaningful to us."
So says Judy Gray, an active member of the Ramot Zion community in Jerusalem's
French Hill neighborhood and, like many of the members, a veteran American
"We wanted to do something to better the lives of people in the broader
community and thereby strengthen ourselves as a community."
She was serving as co-chair of the Ramot Zion Hessed Committee.
its better-known sister tzedaka
translation. Tzedaka relates to giving away money, but isn't exactly "charity,"
nor "philanthropy." Hessed is usually translated as loving-kindness, an
expression rarely used in everyday speech. Other translations or explanations
I've found include "sensitive concern," "compassion," and "free will giving
out of love, a gift without expectation of return."
The French Hill residents wanted to increase their good deeds and sought
a project that would be nearby.
ON A Sunday afternoon, I find Gray stacking games and puzzles on a cart,
in the rehabilitation department of Hadassah-University Medical Center
on Mount Scopus. Anyone who has visited a loved one in a hospital rehab
department knows that the mornings are occupied with strenuous therapy
– physical, occupational, speech – and that the afternoons
can be long and dreary. Recovery from strokes, accidents, terror attacks
can take many months, and the increments of improvement are small. Visits
from family and friends help, but over a long period, conversation often
becomes stilted, visiting children turn restless.
So twice a week, five volunteers at a time from Ramot Zion and the neighborhood
Nechama Hadassah chapter stop by Mount Scopus to set out books and games,
a magazine corner, and a beauty corner with cosmetics.
Frankly it doesn't look like much. Then, presto, what was minutes before
a bleak, nofrills eating area is transformed into a lively clubhouse.
The depressed builder who has fallen from a roof is engaged in a fish
puzzle with his young children. Another family is playing dominoes.
An elderly woman whom no one has come to visit is choosing a magazine.
Gray has printed signs in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, using computer translations
and checking with patients. One of the volunteers makes a regular foray
to east Jerusalem to pick up Arabic periodicals. The games and puzzles
have been donated from private collections.
The volunteers have named their hessed activities Project Eynat, in memory
of Eynat Levy, a young woman in the community who was killed in a car
crash. Levy, as it turns out, was studying physiotherapy at Ben-Gurion
University in Beersheba, but she did her practical training in this very
department. Her mom, Judy Levy, is a co-coordinator of the project.
The volunteers, not the games, are the key to the changed atmosphere.
They have learned to engage the patients and to practice what Gray calls
How do they know what to do? That's where another hessed organization
comes in. An NGO called Haverut specializes in making the connection between
groups like the French Hill volunteers and the health-care facilities
that need them, and provides training.
Haverut was created by Rachel Fox Ettun, a family therapist. Although
"haverut" means friendship in Hebrew, the last syllable echoes the name
of Ettun's daughter Ruth, who died at the age of 11.
Jerusalem being a small town, I remember Ruth. This beautiful, dark-eyed
girl with braids had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was
an infant. I was impressed with how her parents made her life as normal
as possible despite the relentless progression of her disease.
Because she was often restricted to her home, they turned her room into
a little clubhouse, full of books, films and music amid the medical equipment.
When Ruth was seven, she was interviewed on TV for a program on CF. Breathing
with difficulty, she told sick children that it was a waste of effort
to feel sorry for yourself.
"That just makes you sad," Ruth said. "I try to think happy thoughts."
At the age of eight, she was hospitalized and clearly losing her battle,
sedated against the pain. Children's Hospital in St. Louis accepted her
for a lung transplant, but despite cashing in all their assets, her parents
couldn't pay the $800,000 it would cost. They had to explain this to Ruth.
"Is it like buying a coat? If it';s too expensive, we just can't have
it?" she asked. Friends heard of the Ettuns' disappointment, and along
with members of her father's paratrooper unit, got together and sought
donations so she could have the surgery. That's when I met her.
"Sometimes I think God made a mistake when He gave me CF – that
I'm not strong enough to cope," she said. "Then I think again and realize
he did give me strength that other kids don't have."
Three years later, despite the transplant, she succumbed to the disease.
Inspired by her daughter's strength and experienced in caring for the
sick in hospitals, Ettun created Haverut to perpetuate her daughter's
memory and to help cope with her own grief.
THAT'S THE special characteristic of hessed. Though it's given without
expectation of reward, those on the giving side are indeed receiving.
The benefits of volunteering, it turns out, go beyond good feeling. A
review of recent research in the field by the Washington-based Corporation
for National and Community Service maintains that volunteers have lower
mortality rates, greater functional ability and even lower rates of depression
in later life than those who don't volunteer. A longitudinal study, carried
out coincidentally in the same department where Ramot Zion members are
volunteering, came up with the same results. For Jerusalem residents born
1920-21, volunteering was correlated with longer life, even more effective
than continuing at a paid job beyond age 70.
The American researchers asked whether volunteering actually led to improved
health, or whether healthy people were simply more likely to volunteer.
"While it is undoubtedly the case that better health leads to continued
volunteering, these studies demonstrate that volunteering also leads to
improved physical and mental health," they wrote. "Thus they are part
of a self-reinforcing cycle."
According to the studies, volunteers watch much less TV than non-volunteers
and take fewer afternoon naps, two habits that are not correlated positively
with good health.
In Israel, there are a remarkable 26,000 nonprofit organizations of all
sizes and interests. In these days of economic challenge, many are seeking
volunteers. As we approach Shavuot, a holiday that emphasizes the value
of hessed through reading the Book of Ruth, we should explore opportunities
to chip in. It's good for our health.
author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah,
the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns
are her own.