Hospital Courts Orthodox Jews

5 12 2008
Hospital courts Orthodox Jews

Friday, December 5, 2008

PASSAIC — Hector Lora remembers thinking how strange it was that Orthodox Jewish men would frequently stand outside the sliding doors of the front entrance of St. Mary’s Hospital, waiting sometimes 10 minutes for someone else to walk inside before they followed behind.

It was only after several months on the job as a security guard that he learned from fellow employees that they waited in the sweltering heat or in the dead of winter because Jewish law forbids the Orthodox to use electric devices on the Sabbath. Whether it be turning on lights, stepping into an elevator or using the sensors on a sliding door, the Torah commands observant Jews not to activate these things on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

In one case, Lora recalled, a man asked him to walk back to his house to turn off his heater.

“At first he was a little hesitant asking me,” Lora said. “But, I said ‘No problem,’ and we went back to his house on my break,” Lora said.

Lora, now the hospital’s manager of transportation, was one of three dozen employees at St. Mary’s who had come to learn how best to serve their Jewish patients. They spent an hour Thursday in a presentation with a rabbi and local Jewish group, Bikur Cholim, discussing how hospital staff can be more sensitive to the needs of Orthodox Jewish patients.

The presentation was part of the hospital’s greater effort, dubbed the “Passaic Park Initiative,” to reach out to members of the area’s sizable Orthodox Jewish population. Members of the hospital staff have also started a committee to address the needs of Jewish patients and are planning special activities on Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.

Bruce Byrne, president of the St. Mary’s Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the non-profit, said he believes that in the past, some Jews were hesitant to come to the hospital because it is a Catholic institution. He hopes those attitudes change with the new initiatives.

“We encourage the Jewish population to use the hospital,” Byrne said. “We are the only hospital in Passaic, therefore it’s critical we get access to them and we work closely with them.”

Jews believe that life ends when the heart stops, even though under the law a patient is not considered dead until the brain stops. Jews don’t allow organ donations after death and generally are forbidden to have elective surgeries on the Sabbath or holidays. And Jewish law forbids anyone to touch a dying patient if a no-resuscitation order is in effect. Jewish law requires that the deceased be buried with all their body parts and even any fluid that comes out of the body at the time of death. These are just some of the issues staff members discussed with Rabbi Aron Reiner.

“So, patients in an accident, if they get hit by a car, any blood must go with them. And sometimes, people go into the street to wipe up the blood,” Reiner said. Additionally, the same applies to amputated legs — they must be buried with the body.

Orthodox Jews prohibit autopsies unless there is an ongoing criminal investigation, Reiner said, adding that a patient’s family will refuse an autopsy for religious reasons even at the risk of losing the patient’s life insurance policy because they cannot prove the patient’s cause of death.

Reiner, who works in Rockland County, N.Y., and travels to various hospitals in the tri-state area, said he hopes the presentations will create more tolerance of observant Jews and their customs.

For example, he said, a nurse might feel offended if a male patient refuses to take medication from a female nurse who isn’t Jewish.

He said the nurse might feel, “What? Am I less than you? Are you going to look down at me?” Reiner said. But, he said, “We’re not trying to be difficult, arrogant or disrespectful to anyone. It has nothing to do with who you are as a non-Jew.”

Diana Durham, chief nursing officer, said after the seminar that she felt the hospital has made extra efforts to reach out to the Jewish community with things like the Sabbath Room — a room for guests with kosher food and prayer books. She said her staff offers Jewish patients their own refrigerators to keep special Kosher food. But she said, most important, Jewish patients should feel comfortable at Catholic hospitals because the two religions are similar in many ways.

“I think Catholic hospitals lend themselves to Jewish patients because of their common beliefs with Jews,” she said.

Reach Meredith Mandell at 973-569-7107 or



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