For Jewish patients in Essex and Morris counties in northern New Jersey, observing Shabbos in the hospital has become much easier, thanks to a little “thinking outside the box.” Or, perhaps, in it, as part of a program called “Shabbat in a Box.”
“In the hospital setting, any kind of symbol of our Jewish heritage or of Shabbat is a very nice gesture,” says Alice Klein of Livingston, N.J., who received a “Shabbat in a Box” package when her mother was a patient at Saint Barnabas Medical Center there. “It brought us a lot of comfort and reminded us that we are am echad—‘one nation’—who thinks of each other in times of need.”
The boxes include battery-operated Shabbos candles, a Kiddush cup, grape juice, fresh challah, kosher snacks, information about Shabbos and a notecard colored by children in the community, and have been distributed to some 3,000 patients in the past two years.
Currently, Morristown Medical Center, Saint Barnabas Medical Center and Hackensack UMC Mountainside participate in the program.
Two years ago, when Dara Orbach was staying with her mother-in-law, Yocheved Orbach, at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, she and other family members did not want to leave Yocheved’s bedside for even one moment. As such, the question arose as to how to obtain the necessary items to observe Shabbos in the hospital room.
“We were given a little box in the room filled with candles, a Kiddush cup and everything that we needed for Shabbat,” recounts Dara Orbach. “This box allowed us to make Shabbat in the hospital without leaving my mother-in-law. It was such a beautiful gesture at a time when we needed it most.”
Upon returning home, Orbach presented the idea to Toba Grossbaum, director of Friendship Circle at Chabad of Livingston, N.J. (Her husband, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, is executive director.) One week later, Grossbaum had ordered everything needed to fill the boxes and had also organized volunteers to begin packing them.
Orbach and her husband, David, sponsor the program in memory of his mother, who passed away on Aug. 7, 2014.
“One of the most outstanding aspects of my mother-in-law’s personality was that she was an incredible friend and was always there for people in their times of need,” says Dara Orbach. “It is so appropriate that ‘Shabbat in a Box’ is in the merit of her neshamah [soul] because it gives comfort to people during such times.”
The boxes, which are packed by young adults involved with Friendship Circle, have also become a popular mitzvah project at birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and Sisterhood events.
Says Orbach: “Through the packing, people teach their kids about bikur cholim, visiting the sick, and about Shabbat. It’s a wonderful tool to teach about chesed, kindness to others.”
When Pearl Lebovic, a chaplain at New Jersey’s Morristown Medical Center, first heard about “Shabbat in a Box,” she was excited at the thought of providing patients with something both spiritual and practical.
“It is such an amazing aid that makes the idea of Shabbat come alive,” says Lebovic. “The boxes leave the patients with a sense that they’re cared about by the community. It’s telling them that we want them to remember that it’s Shabbat and to please join us in celebrating it in whatever way they can.”
She and her husband, Rabbi Yechezkel Lebovic, have been delivering about 30 boxes every Friday for the past year. The hospital is so supportive of the project that every week, it supplies the fresh challah rolls packed inside.
“Most patients get a big smile on their faces and show a real appreciation for it,” says Lebovic. “We make the box a main part of our visit to impart the message of Shabbat to them.”
Lebovic recalls a note she received from a patient, remarking the profound comfort she felt in receiving the box during her time of grief. Another family who received the Shabbos package late last year reported being extremely appreciative of the program. The Shabbos provisions, the family said, provided a moment of calm during an incredibly stressful time.
For the hospitals that have welcomed the boxes, the positive effects are obvious.
“Patients really appreciate the thoughtfulness of the community. They embrace having that connection to their Judaism,” says Sally Malech, director of marketing and public relations at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. “We were the first hospital to embrace the program, and we try to support our Jewish patients as much as possible.”
When patients indicate that they are Jewish upon registering, volunteers bring a box to the individual’s room; between 10 and 20 boxes are delivered at the hospital every week. As the result of a generous donor, Saint Barnabas has Shabbos elevators. It also has a Bikur Cholim Suite that includes two bedrooms, a bathroom and a pantry stocked with kosher food and siddurim through the Zichron Dovid Bikur Cholim organization.
“When patients come to the hospital, it’s usually for an emergency, so they are often unprepared for Shabbat,” explains Malech. “These boxes provide tremendous comfort to patients and their families at their time of need.”
The hospital’s president, Stephen P. Zieniewicz, a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, believes that the packages directly align with the hospital’s mission of assisting patients and their families in any way possible during their stay. “It has brought spirituality into the hospital room,” he says. “The value of these boxes to our patients cannot be overemphasized. The packages are extremely meaningful.”
Indeed, for families facing serious challenges, the boxes can be a lifeline from the Jewish community—and a reminder that they are not alone.
“On a Friday, a rabbi entered my dad’s room with a box. It had so many wonderful things in it during such a sad time for my family, as my dad was dying. Through our sadness at my dad’s bedside, the rabbi opened the box and kept pulling out the contents to show us what was inside,” shares a community member who asked to keep her family’s name private. “This box put a smile on our faces during such a terrible time. Please know that we said the prayers and lit the candles and ate the candy. This box helped us remember the outside world with its kindness and content.
“The next day, my dad died, and we left the candles lit in the room as a reminder of our loss and our religion. Thank you so very much for providing this box to Jewish patients at the hospital. It means more than you might know.”