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Confined to Bed But Not Constrained In Spirit, Patients Find Peace in a Traveling Torah

Los Angeles - May 5, 2006 - The elderly Russian patient requested water to cleanse his hands before reaching, hesitantly, to touch the holy scroll. He recited a blessing, touched the Torah that had been brought to his hospital bed, and wept.  

But in the silence of that moment, he appeared transformed, becoming livelier, happier and more hopeful. This man who was gravely ill, whose morale had been sagging, found his spirits restored in a way that no medication could offer.

The Torah that soothed the ailing patient’s soul had been brought to his room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center by Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Levi Meier and Chaplaincy Volunteer Sandy Gordon. It was large and bulky, borrowed from its place in the Ark of the medical center’s chapel. But the experience – the way the scroll touched the patient’s heart – gave Gordon an idea. In honor of her parents, Milton and Florence Slotkin, she wanted to give the hospital a lightweight Torah that could easily be carried and placed in patient rooms and even on their beds.  

“I thought Sandy had come up with an ingenious new form of pastoral care and caring. I began to contact a number of scribes who could undertake this holy work for us,” said Rabbi Meier. “After several months, I located a father and son, rabbis in Jerusalem, who had already commissioned just such a Torah from a scribe in Ashdod, Israel. He had almost completed work on the scroll and would be able to finish the meticulous process of writing it within a couple of months.”

The new Torah arrived at Cedars-Sinai on Thursday, January 5, 2006, late in the afternoon, hand-delivered by the father and son rabbis. Both wore long black frock coats and hats to present the Torah, which was covered with a dark blue velvet cloth with golden embroidery and carried an inscription honoring the Slotkins. It was placed in the Ark of the chapel, next to the full-size Torah.

The Torah, the central and most important document of Judaism, is written in Hebrew and always housed in a sacred place in a synagogue called an Ark. When the Torah is carried during services, members of the congregation often reach out and kiss it.  Carrying the Torah is a serious responsibility and tremendous honor for those entrusted with its care.

Although Cedars-Sinai’s “traveling Torah” is small, the writing is very clear – all done by hand. It quickly took on a major role in the Chaplaincy program, said Rabbi Meier. The day after it arrived, the chaplains took it with them to visit a patient who was feeling discouraged and depressed.

“I haven’t seen one of these in such a long time,” she said, carefully taking the Torah and cradling it in her arms. “I’ve felt so separated – from my family, from my people. Now, all of a sudden, I feel connected again.”

Patients who are nearing their final hours of life find strength and spiritual healing in holding the Torah, praying with it, or simply having it present. Shortly after an elderly patient’s death, a grandson noticed the Torah. “In these past few months, my grandfather lost a lot of his faculties and memories, but one thing he never lost was his connection to the Torah,” he said.

“One afternoon, I was called to the bedside of a woman who was in the process of dying. Both she and her husband were Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. Her husband stood with their sons. Each took a turn holding the Torah,” Rabbi Meier said.  “One son gently put the Torah on the bed, next to his mother. He placed her hand on the velvet cover so that she could feel its smooth, soft texture. ‘She was a seamstress,’ he explained. ‘She will appreciate this.’” A moment later he turned to me and said, ‘We will never forget this moment.’”

Cedars-Sinai’s Torah sustains patients in life, as well. A young patient recuperating from surgery felt pain in his hand from the intravenous line. He asked if he could hold the Torah, which he placed over the painful hand. “It doesn’t hurt me now,” he said after a few minutes. “Can you leave the Torah with me a little longer? As long as it’s here, I don’t feel any pain.”

“I continue to be astounded by the ways in which the new Torah is received by patients and families, and I believe that every Jewish hospital could benefit from having a Torah that can be touched and held by patients,” said Rabbi Meier, noting that Cedars-Sinai is one of 33 Jewish hospitals in the United States.

“Even for patients who have been estranged from their faith for a while, the Torah brings a special closeness to God. This is a beautiful, special gift from Sandy Gordon to Cedars-Sinai and the patients in our care.”