|From Kitchen Table to Corporate Headquarters
The Remarkable Odyssey of Bikur Cholim of Lakewood
One Shabbos in 1992, Mrs. Liba Friedman hosted an elderly widow in her Lakewood home. The guest was alone in town; her children and extended family lived in other cities miles away. So when the woman suddenly took ill, it was up to Mrs. Friedman, the mother of a large family, to take charge of the situation. If she did not go with her guest to the hospital, who would calm and comfort her? Who would answer the doctors’ questions? Who would make sure she got the care she needed? Mrs. Friedman was a stranger to hospital protocol, but at this critical moment, necessity turned her into an active patient advocate for her guest.
And that is how the seeds of Lev Rochel Bikur Cholim were planted.
Through that one trip to the hospital, Mrs. Friedman came to the stark realization that people in medical crisis needed far more than medical attention. The experience spurred Mrs. Friedman and her friend, Mrs. Yehudis Mueller, to turn their kitchen tables into the incubator of an organization that brings comfort and practical assistance to thousands of Lakewood patients and their families in their times of greatest need.
The Establishment of Transportation Division
Because the needs were so many and so varied, there seemed to be no natural starting point for their efforts. They set just one, overall goal: help where help is needed. The founding of the transportation division is a case in point. In those years, scores of people required transportation to doctors and hospitals in the New York and Philadelphia areas. In addition, children in need of therapies would usually have to travel out of town to find suitable options. Recognizing this dire need, upon the advice of Rebbetzin Rishel Kotler, a transportation division was founded. Initially, Bikur Cholim served as a transportation “shadchan” service by matching those who needed transportation with those who were already planning a trip to the desired destination. Eventually, the organization began to hire its own drivers to ensure consistent, reliable transportation.
From Crutches to Hospital Beds
As more people heard about Bikur Cholim, the organization began to receive calls for various other medical related services. One consistent need that emerged was for medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, crutches and hospital beds. Many people could not afford the needed equipment or did not know how to obtain it. Therefore, Bikur Cholim reached out to the public for medical equipment donations. Soon, donations were pouring in and the service mushroomed into an all-encompassing Medical Equipment Division that today possesses and lends thousands of items.
Infusing Caregivers with Life
Throughout the first two years of Bikur Cholim’s operation in Lakewood, it became increasingly clear that when Orthodox Jewish patients came to the hospital, often in a state of crisis, they were not worrying about how they would find kosher food. It was equally clear, however, that for patients and their caregivers to keep up their strength during the crisis, kosher food was a necessity. Thus began one of Bikur Cholim of Lakewood’s best-known and deeply appreciated services -- its hospital pantries, stocked with a variety of kosher snacks and readymade meals.
The first pantry, opened in 1993 at Kimball Medical Center, was sponsored by the Mueller family. For several years, volunteers would go to local businesses on Friday seeking food donations. The pantries would thus be stocked with challahdonated by Gelbstein’s, liver, coleslaw and other Shabbos foods from R&S, milk and yogurt from Kollel Food Store, as well as snacks and other foodstuffs from numerous other establishments. Every Friday, a volunteer would visit each establishment to pick up their donations and would then continue on to Kimball Hospital to stock the pantry. As the community grew, the need grew, and it wasn’t long before Bikur Cholim opened pantries in Brick and Monmouth hospitals as well.
Currently, Bikur Cholim pantries provide the sick and their families with nourishment for both the body and soul in six New Jersey hospitals. Those pantries service the overwhelming majority of Lakewood families who at one time or another find themselves in the hospital, whether it is in times of joy for the birth of a baby, or times of difficulty and travail such as an illness in the family.
Ever alert to the needs of patients and their families, Bikur Cholim extended its nutrition services beyond the hospitals to those families weathering a loved one’s health crisis at home. To meet their needs, the Meals for Families in Crisis Department was established in 1995. The program began with a phone in yet another Lakewood kitchen - that of Mrs. Shaindy Landynski. She took upon herself the coordination of volunteers to cook the meals and transport them to the homes of the stricken families. Now, more than 18 years later, Mrs. Landynski still heads the meals division (from her kitchen) and oversees the making and delivering of tens of meals each week. This includes suppers, Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, and meals to accommodate special dietary needs.
Reaching Out to the Elderly and Their Families
In 1992, at Bikur Cholim’s inception, the Lakewood community was home to very few elderly people. As the years passed, elderly parents of local residents slowly began to move to Lakewood to be near their children or even to move in with their children. Aside from the spike in hospitalizations and need for medical equipment that this precipitated, families were thrown into an entire new milieu -- that of caring for elderly parents.
To assist with that need, Bikur Cholim began a support group for those caring for elderly people. The group was initially led by Mrs. Barbra Wolfson, a therapist who specialized in geriatric care issues. When Mrs. Wolfson moved out of town, Mrs. Tehilla Weisberg took over. That group continues to meet weekly.
In addition to assisting the children of elderly parents, the need arose to provide a form of entertainment for the elderly. Approximately ten years ago, Bikur Cholim initiated another marvelous service -- the Neshei Group. The Neshei Group is a group of women in their 70s and 80s, who come together for about two hours each week at the Laurel on the Pines Clubhouse for entertainment, exercise and lunch. Every week a different speaker or activity is planned. In later years, a second group was formed for younger seniors.
The first eight years of Bikur Cholim’s existence were years of growth and many new initiatives. Yet, despite its sustained growth, the heartbeat of the organization remained located primarily in the kitchens of Mrs. Friedman and Mrs. Mueller. With remarkable sacrifice and sensitivity and with the assistance of an army of devoted volunteers, they serviced the needs of the sick and their families in Lakewood and beyond as well.
As time went on and the Lakewood community grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that Bikur Cholim had to move up to the next level. One important step toward that goal was to harness the talents of Lakewood’s male population.
Enter, Rabbi Yehuda Kaszirer. Rabbi Kaszirer started as one of Bikur Cholim’s few the male volunteers. In that capacity he displayed tremendous talent and alacrity, empathy and vision. When Bikur Cholim realized that it was time to undergo a transformation, it appointed Rabbi Kaszirer as Executive Director.
Rabbi Kaszirer relates, “I joined Bikur Cholim after seeing an ad in one of the local publications begging for male volunteers. I started doing visitations in the hospitals and, as I became familiar with the hospitals, I recognized how we could build on the outstanding existing foundation of the organization to transform it into an all-encompassing organization capable of servicing all of Lakewood’s cholim and their families.
“We completely transformed the transportation department beginning with the initiation of a texting system to solicit volunteer drivers and later expanding our services to include a Manhattan shuttle in our own state-of-theys a week!
The Liaison from Within with Local Hospitals
“A major breakthrough was our efforts to partner with hospitals in order to service patients. With the help of Rav Yisroel Schenkolewski, we forged relationships with the leadership of Kimball Hospital and later, with numerous other local hospitals. We developed excellent rapport with the hospitals and they in turn developed an understanding of the unique needs and sensitivities of our community. It is truly a win/win situation where both hospital and patient have become better able to provide and receive service through us.” -art, handicap-equipped van. Today our van travels to Manhattan 5 da
Helping Cholim in Crisis, 24-7
Nearly eight years ago, Bikur Cholim instituted a 24-hour hotline enabling cholim to access the services of the organization at anytime of the day and night. There are no words to describe how much of a help this has been for cholim in crisis in the middle of the night with no one to whom they could turn. Recently, at the behest of Bikur Cholim’s poskim, Rav Shmuel Blech, Rav Osher Chaim Leiberman and the Skverer Dayan, the hotline has also become available on Shabbos.
The acquisition of the Bikur Cholim house located next to Kimball Hospital was also a paradigm shift in Bikur Cholim’s services. It provided a home away from home for those forced to stay in the hospital with a sick person on Shabbos. This immaculately maintained home is stocked with all of the ingredients that make up the Shabbos meal, from gefilte fish to hot piping soup, from potato kugel to steaming cholent. There are bedrooms with comfortable beds, a living room with a cozy couch, siddurim, seforim and plenty of reading material. More than just a home away from home, it is a place to refresh both body and spirit, empowering the family members to deal with their crisis, knowing that there are Yidden who really care!
The Bikur Cholim House has also become the food headquarters. In order to accommodate the increasing need, a commercial kitchen was installed so that the organization could make hundreds of meals weekly.
For a period of time, the Bikur Cholim House was also home to Bikur Cholim’s medical equipment, but with the increasing need for medical equipment, that department was expanded. Four very large trailers have replaced the Bikur Cholim House as home to the equipment.
“Bikur Cholim today, 22 years after its humble beginnings in the kitchens of Mrs. Mueller and Friedman, has been transformed into a multi-faceted, state-of-the-art organization that serves thousands of Lakewood residents in the most efficient, sensitive way.
“Yes,” says Rabbi Kaszirer, “we have gone high tech; yes, we provide services quickly, quietly, discreetly and comprehensively, assisting with the physical and mental health of the patients and their families, but we have still not forgotten the special warmth of the kitchen, the caring, brother-to-brother, sister-to-sister empathy that has characterized Bikur Cholim since its inception and continues to guide it as we broaden our horizons of caring.”