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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Food For Shabbos Bina 2010

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Byline: Debbie Shapiro
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"Every time I recall that difficult period of my life, I can't help but start to cry," recalls Mrs. Schwartz (a pseudonym), a volunteer at Bikur Cholim Chasdei Yoel. "It was the first Pesach after my husband passed away, and I couldn't bear the thought of making Yom Tov on my own. I arranged to spend the holiday at a hotel, but then my one and only son caught pneumonia and we ended up in the hospital. I sat next to his bed, the tears streaming down my face, wondering how I would manage to get everything I needed for the Seder. I felt so alone and miserable. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder; a smiling middle-aged woman stood there, her face radiating compassion. She handed me a thermos, a cooler and a big black bag that contained everything I could possibly need for the entire Yom Tov – from tablecloths and cut toilet paper to a Seder plate and three full seudos. After offering a few words of chizuk and wishing my son a refuah sheleimah she continued on her mission of mercy. That simple act of chessed that came during such a dark period of my life gave me the courage to carry on. "


Today, in every Israeli hospital, organizations such as Chasdei Yoel of Bnei Brak and Ezrat Cholim of Rechovot are there to bring a taste of Shabbos – both literally and figuratively –to the patients, visitors, doctors and nurses spending Shabbos in the hospital. In addition to distributing glatt kosher Shabbos meals, these organizations supply "Shabbos rooms" in many hospitals, where everyone is warmly invited to a beautiful Shabbos seudah, replete with divrei Torah, zemiros, and good company.

But it wasn't always this way. Some thirty years ago, just minutes after lighting the Shabbos candles, my neighbor's two-year-old son fell off his push-cart and gashed his head. My neighbor grabbed him, waved down a passing taxi and rushed to Hadassah Hospital. By the time the doctors finished suturing the wound and were ready to discharge her son, it was too late to return home. To this day, I remember my neighbor's description of that difficult Shabbos, without Kiddush, without challos, without anything hot to eat. Of course there were people who offered to share whatever they had, but she felt uncomfortable taking more than the bare minimum. She even had to ask kindhearted strangers for diapers and cut toilet paper!

Everyone who heard her tale of woe commented that "someone" should really organize "something", so that people arriving there in the middle of Shabbos would not find themselves in a similar situation. 


In the early seventies, a group of retired Jews living in Bnei Brak – all Holocaust survivors –began visiting patients in the hospitals every Friday afternoon. To satisfy the many requests for wine and challos that they received, they started bringing bottles of wine and small challos to hand out to anyone who requested them. It wasn't anything official, it was just ordinary Yidden who wanted to help their fellow Jews. After a couple of years, one of the younger men began preparing a large pot of vegetable soup in his house on Friday morning. He purchased several dozen thermoses so that he and his friends could distribute thermoses of hot soup together with the challos and wine.

Today, most of the original volunteers are no longer alive, but many of their children grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, are actively involved in preparing and distributing over a thousand Shabbos meals to five different hospitals in various areas of Eretz Yisrael.


"Preparations start on Wednesday," explains Rivka Greene, one of the several dozen women who volunteer for Chasdei Yoel Bnei Brak. "That's when we order the vegetables and begin preparing the salads. Every week, approximately 300 lbs of potatoes, 200 lbs of carrots and 350 lbs of onions as well as crates of apples, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and eggplant and bags of fresh garlic and fruit is delivered to our industrial size kitchen, located in the basement of an apartment building. After the vegetable order is put away in the refrigerator room, anywhere between fifteen to twenty volunteers begin peeling and chopping as they prepare the dozen or so salads that we include in the Shabbos kits. 

Although many of our volunteers are grandmothers, and even great grandmothers – one woman is in her eighties –younger woman and even high school girls also come to help out. The achdus is amazing – Litvish, Satmar, Sefardi, Gerrer – we all work together to help Klal Yisrael.

Five o'clock Thursday morning a group of dedicated volunteers start preparing the gefilte fish for Shabbos. By midmorning, our ranks have swelled to over fifteen. There is so much to do: we prepare three and a half enormous trays of apple kugel; huge pots of Yerushalmi kugel, which we cut into individual portions and then wrap each portion in wax paper and aluminum foil so that it can be heated on Shabbos; giant turkey balls, which we cut into individual portions; baked chicken; baked Sefardi style fish; and of course our Hungarian style vegetable soup, containing over 200 lbs of vegetables!

In the late afternoon our first challah shipment – 1800 small individual challos – arrives. High school students package them two to a bag for lechem mishnah, making sure to attach a sticker wishing our patients a refuah sheleimah and a gut Shabbos.

By four o'clock Friday morning, a group of three or four women are already busy in the kitchen, preparing the cholent and other Shabbos foods. By ten o'clock they are joined by a dozen or so high school students from one of the local high schools, which does not hold classes on Friday. The girls package the 2200 challos that were delivered Friday morning or organize the individual Shabbos kits.

Each Shabbos kit contains two candles, matches, disposable dishes and cutlery, disposable table cloths, challah cover, cut toilet paper, sugar and saccharin, salt, four small challos, a bottle of wine, a thermos of vegetable soup, cookies, zemiros, a pamphlet of divrei Torah, and spices for havdalah. The cooler contains gefilte fish, baked meat balls, kugel, farfel, compote, and a variety of salads. Volunteers come on Shabbos afternoon to distribute plates of piping hot chulent. 


"The volunteers take great pleasure in making sure that everything is beautiful and b’taam," Mrs. Greene continues. "For every Yom Tov, we add the traditional Yom Tov foods. On Rosh Hashanah everyone receives a small container of honey, a few slices of apple and pomegranate, and a date, as well as a warm blessing for a gut gebentcht and healthy year.

Two weeks before Pesach, the kitchen goes into galus; we move into smaller quarters while a group of  men clean and kasher it for Pesach. Throughout the year, our Pesachdig keilim are stored in a locked room. Now they are hauled out and our amazing group of women come in and begin cooking – even as they are busy at home making final preparations for the holiday! Erev Shabbos Hagadol, the day of bedikas chametz, erev Pesach – the cholim are always there, waiting for us.”


"I'm one of the eighteen volunteers who distribute the Shabbos kits at Beilinson Hospital. We leave Bnei Brak Friday at around noon, and we return in the late afternoon – in the winter I barely manage to jump into the shower before I have to light the Shabbos candles!

I spend a lot of time visiting women on the oncology ward. It's not easy; I try to give them a few words of chizuk, and make sure that they and the people accompanying them have everything they need for Shabbos. After that, it's on to the maternity ward. What a difference! And we also distribute Shabbos kits to the medical staff to show our appreciation for all their hard work. They look forward to seeing us each week.

It's not just the food; it's the love and warmth that we bring with the food. It's the caring, the phone calls that we make after Shabbos to see how the patient is doing, and the home visits once the patient is discharged from the hospital. The nurses call us malachim – we come, we do our shlichus, and then we leave without fanfare.

I started volunteering at Chasdei Yoel ten years ago. My mother a"h was a Chasdei Yoel volunteer, and I am just following in her footsteps.  All week long I am busy with my family and job, but on Friday I do something for my neshamah – I help other Yidden in need."


In 1973, Rabbi Eliyahu Yeret of Rechovot began devoting his Friday afternoons to visiting the patients at Kaplan Hospital. It wasn't long before he realized that many patients and their family members were stuck in the hospital without access to Shabbos provisions. So he started bringing bags of home-cooked food, as well as small challos and bottles of wine, to distribute on the wards. Soon people began phoning him to order their kosher Shabbos meals.

Meanwhile, as his name became known, people discharged from the emergency room and family members accompanying a patient who was admitted on Shabbos, would appear at his doorstep to request Shabbos hospitality. Every week the Yerets hosted at least half a dozen guests. "Although we loved being able to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim," Rabbi Yeret adds, "we live on the fifth floor, and it's a forty five minute walk from the hospital to our home, so the situation was far from ideal."

Late one Friday night, a young couple, who had come to the delivery room Friday afternoon and were discharged several hours later, showed up. They had gotten lost and were exhausted from climbing endless flights of stairs in search of the Yeret family that lived on the fifth floor. "At that moment," Rabbi Yeret recalls, "I knew that we had to find a place adjacent to the hospital."

In 1993, the hospital offered him an old, dilapidated building located on the hospital grounds. Within a few months the building was renovated and turned into the Shabbos Hotel.

"My original plans were to find an older couple to take care of the guests each Shabbos, but the Pnei Menachem instructed me to take a different couple each week, adding that we will not encounter any obstacles. So I began by asking couples who had not yet been blessed with children to spend Shabbos at the Hotel. One after another, these childless couples were blessed with offspring. Only later did I learn that the Midrash in Tanchumah states that the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim is a segulah for the blessing of children."

As long as Ezrat Cholim Rechovot was an unofficial, one-man show, Rabbi Yeret and his wife prepared the meals in their small, Israeli-sized kitchen. But with the inauguration of the Shabbos Hotel, Rechovot's moreh d'asrah, Rabbi Rubin, shlita, told Rabbi Yeret that to cook for the tzibur one needs a mashgiach. Today, Ezrat Cholim purchases all its Shabbos food at a chareidi catering establishment.

Today, a long line of couples wait for the opportunity to devote an entire Shabbos to the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.

Mrs. S., today the mother of a large family recalls, "When my husband and I learned that it was our turn to spend Shabbos at the hotel, we were both nervous and excited. After all, we were still in our early twenties, and certainly inexperienced in hosting such a wide variety of Yidden.

When we arrived, Rabbi Yeret was already there to greet us and make us feel at home. With his warm, gregarious smile I could feel my nervousness fade away. He explained what should be served when, and showed us where all the food was kept. I was amazed; such a variety, there was something there for everyone.

Afterwards, as we made up the beds in the guests' rooms, Rabbi Yeret left to make his rounds in the wards, distributing Shabbos kits containing three full meals as well as everything anyone could possibly need for Shabbos.

That Shabbos my husband and I hosted several dozen guests at our Shabbos table. At first we were shy, but then we got into the spirit of it. The singing, the divrei Torah, the words of inspiration, it was all amazing, but what really impressed me was the achdus. Knitted kippot, cardboard yarmulkes, streimels, black hats, we were all in it together, a tiny island of kedushah in the cold, sterile hospital.

Late that night a guest showed up who had not yet heard Kiddush. He told us that Friday afternoon he had rushed his wife to the emergency room. Now that she was admitted to the ward, he was planning on walking several miles across town to spend the night at a friend's home.  He was so emotional when he walked in and saw the food on the blech and the table already set for the morning meal.  And he was even more amazed when he saw the delicious Shabbos seudah we served him.


For many non-religious Jews, the Shabbos Hotel is their first encounter with Yiddishkeit. One Sukkos the hosting couple noticed an elderly man with a deep tan, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, his head bare, standing just outside the sukkah. They invited him in, but he pointed to his kippah-less head and it was obvious that he felt uncomfortable entering without a head covering. One of the men at the table took off his hat and handed the non-religious Jew his own yarmulke. The man entered the sukkah and looked around him in amazement. With tears in his eyes he said, "I have been a member of my kibbutz for over sixty years, and I have traveled everywhere and seen everything, but this is they very first time that I have ever set foot in a sukkah!"

The other guests were amazed that a Jew in Eretz Yisrael would have to come to the hospital to encounter a sukkah. But, as Mrs. S., the young woman who had been blessed after that one Shabbos at the Shabbos Hotel, explained so poignantly, "There's something special about being together in such a place. The artificial barriers separating us disappear, and we see how we are all really brothers." 

To contact Chasdei Yoel, In Israel: 972-3-616-0869
In America call: 845-774-7508 or 718-435-7026

Rabbi Yeret can be contacted at 972-50-410-0101 or by email at ezratcholim@enativ.com

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