Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill


When my friend, Debra, learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would.

During her daily visits, she recited Tehillim (psalms) aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.

Eventually, Debra’s prayers were answered, and the man awoke from his coma. When he first saw Debra, he told her that he had heard every one of the Tehillim she had recited, and that it had helped him recover.

This man had been beyond the reach of medical technology, but he had not been beyond the reach of a spiritual connection made by a loving friend. She knew that even a person who is severely ill, perhaps irreversibly, has a nefesh, a living soul. Who can judge what meaning and fulfillment that soul receives from hearing the voice, feeling the touch or receiving the heartfelt prayers of those around them?

Most people believe that while there’s life, there’s hope. But in a frightening trend, lawmakers and “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have decided to eliminate both possibilities for the dramatically ill or infirm. Three years ago, the Dutch Parliament officially legalized euthanasia for adults who requested it, and it is legal in the state of Oregon.

But Groningen University Hospital in The Netherlands has taken the horrifying step in recent months of allowing its doctors to euthanize children under the age of 12 if doctors believe their suffering is “intolerable” or if they have an incurable illness. Legal investigations have determined the medical decisions were appropriate. While this had already been common practice for many years in The Netherlands, giving it legal sanction is chilling.

When a society condones killing patients whose medical cases are deemed hopeless, it discounts the value and the purpose of the soul, and negates the guiding hand of Hashem in our lives. It expresses a belief that people are valued only in utilitarian terms: Once they become too much of a drag on resources or create hardship for family members, it’s time to give them a lethal injection.

This idea is not unique to Europe. Peter Singer, head of Princeton University’s ironically named Center for Human Values, has long advocated the disposability of disabled or unwanted babies. People like Singer and the bureaucrats from Groningen University Hospital see no transcendent spark, nothing of the divine, in the human being. They see no reason to put up with the mess, expense and emotional havoc wrought by an inconveniently ill relative.

Judaism teaches that every second of a person’s life is precious, filled with potential, even for the severely ill. Each time Debra recited psalms for that comatose man, his spirit revived, and eventually his body followed suit.

Even when a person’s medical situation is hopeless, the energy, love and prayers given to that person by family, friends and caregivers has enormous spiritual value. Three years ago, I watched in agony as my mother lay dying from cancer. Barring an open miracle, her situation was irreversible.

But when she could do nothing for herself any longer, she still revealed a spiritual awareness, even calling out to my father to tell him she was coming to him soon. He had died years earlier.

And what about the value of my sitting at her bedside, tending to her needs with the bottomless love and tenderness that I felt for her? At that point, with my mother’s pain palliated, the most intense pain belonged to my sister and me — the people who loved her most in this world. I believe there was enormous value in the circle of giving that took place in my mother’s dying days, and I believe that at some level her spirit benefited from our ministrations.

Many people in similar circumstances have found that the expressions of love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and faith that are shared during these painful times often become some of the most meaningful and defining moments of a lifetime.

As a result of the Gronigen protocols, countless Dutch citizens will no longer have the opportunity for these transcendent moments. The seriously ill or infirm will not have the chance to benefit from a potential medical breakthrough, a miracle or even the love of those closest to them.

Isn’t it obvious that, sooner or later, others who are a little too disabled or imperfect will also be deemed disposable? In this awful, cruel and brave new world, only the fittest will survive. For the sake of our humanity, we must fight to protect the sanctity of the living.

Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of two humor books. Her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.


Trio Spearheads New Bid to Save JCC

At the downtown YMCA on Saturday mornings, parents
congregate at poolside tables to gossip, kibitz and trade jokes, while their
children take swimming lessons. For the adults, these hour-long sessions
represent nothing less than a much-needed respite from the grind of the work

Janie Schulman, Jenny Isaacson and Barry Jacobson are not
like the other mothers and fathers. While their children learn the
breaststroke, the trio — an attorney, public relations specialist and
businessman, respectively — huddle together at the Y, plotting ways to save the
beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC). They discuss
strategy, talk marketing and try to buoy each other’s spirits as the JCC they
have worked so hard to rebuild could be sold to an outside party by the property’s
owner, the financially troubled Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles
(JCCGLA). The threesome fret that Silverlake could one day soon end up as a
strip mall or some other soulless venture denuded of any Jewishness if it
changes hands.

To prevent that from happening, the Silverlake three have
just submitted a $2.1 million offer to purchase the center. JCCGLA, which
rejected an earlier $1.8 million offer, will give careful consideration to the
new bid, Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi said. JCCGLA officials
said they have received several offers in the $2.4 million range, but might
accept a discounted offer from Silverlake supporters, provided they offer
acceptable terms.

For Silverlake President Schulman and activist board members
Isaacson and Jacobson, nothing less is at stake than preserving an important
piece of Judaica that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in
Silverlake, Echo Park and Los Feliz. That’s why from the moment JCCGLA first
threatened to shutter Silverlake two and a half years ago amid a budget crisis,
they led the movement to stave off the JCC’s death sentence.

Not only did they succeed, but Silverlake has seen its
preschool enrollment boom. The center is the area’s only profitable JCC,
despite receiving not a penny from its former biggest benefactor, The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“I am not a religious person, but the Silverlake JCC has
helped my family and me stay in touch with our Jewish history, tradition and
culture,” said Isaacson, whose son just graduated and whose daughter attends
the center’s preschool. “Silverlake embodies the concept of tikkun olam, or
repairing the world, an important principle I hope to instill in my children.”

Silverlake’s success notwithstanding, JCCGLA, an
organization entrusted with aiding and abetting local JCCs, put the center up
for sale in January partly to help pay off the $2.2 million it owes The
Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 loan on the

For its part, Federation officials praise Silverlake for
bringing Jewish programs to an underserved community. Still, the organization
has so far refused to help save the center by buying it outright and
transferring ownership to Silverlake supporters or by forgiving enough JCCGLA
debt to make a sale unnecessary. The Federation has also turned down or ignored
specific ideas floated by Silverlake supporters, including requests to cosign a
loan, Schulman said.

“The Federation and JCCGLA have offered little beyond
platitudes and have utterly failed to respond to written and oral requests to
commit to our survival,” Schulman said.

John Fishel, Federation president, said his organization has
helped Silverlake on several occasions, including making $50,000 available two
years ago for emergencies. He said he would gladly sit down with JCCGLA and
Silverlake executives to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, adding
that The Federation is willing “to be flexible in all sorts of ways.”

With time running out, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson said
they have had to ratchet up the pressure lately to save the center.

On March 23, they organized a demonstration with 150
preschoolers, parents and concerned community members in front of The
Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Clad in orange shirts with “Shalom”
emblazoned on the front, the group carried signs, sang Jewish songs and chanted
slogans such as, “Let my people stay!” Jacobson, who oversees the center’s
security and keeps the grounds spotless, exhorted protesters to shout louder to
make their voices heard by Federation executives upstairs.

Public relations maven Isaacson succeeded in getting the
event covered by such mainstream media outlets as NBC, Fox News, KCBS and the
Los Angeles Times. Against that backdrop, Schulman succeeded in convincing
JCCGLA to hold off selling Silverlake until center supporters could cobble
together their own offer by the end of last week (March 26).

“I take my hat off to them for pushing so hard to bring this
to a positive solution both for their kids and the other kids at Silverlake,”
Fishel said.

If nothing else, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson have shown
pit bull-like tenacity in their efforts. They each devote at least 20 hours a
week to the cause, spending much of their time on three-way phone calls and
answering one another’s e-mails. “I’ve divorced my family to do this,” quipped
Schulman, a partner specializing in labor law at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

She has done a lot, JCC supporters said. Schulman helped
incorporate Silverlake and has served as the point person in negotiations with
The Federation and JCCGLA.

When she heard in October 2001 that Silverlake was going to
close in six weeks, she landed a 5 p.m. meeting that same day at Fishel’s
office. Cradling her 4-month-old son, Max, in her arms, she spoke to him about
the center’s importance to the community.

The next day, Fishel and JCCGLA executives went to
Silverlake to confer with supporters. The Federation and JCCGLA later committed
to keeping it open until at least the end of that school year.

“It would have been very difficult to hold things together
without Janie’s knowledge and leadership,” Silverlake board member Shelly
Freiberg said.

For Schulman, the child of Holocaust survivors, the JCC has
made it easy for her to keep her Jewish heritage alive, despite having married
out of the faith, she said. Schulman remembers her parents “kvelling” as they
listened to their granddaughter, Emma, recite the Chanukah blessing over the
candles two years ago, a prayer she had learned at the JCC.

Like Schulman, Jacobson has made a mark at Silverlake.
During hot summer days, he has spearheaded cleanup efforts. In winter, he has
braved the pouring rain to patch holes in the aging center’s roof. Drawing on
his knowledge of business, he renegotiated contracts with security firms,
janitorial services and phone providers after Silverlake became independent,
saving the center thousands, Schulman said.

The 48-year-old entrepreneur said the center has served as
more than a place where his son and daughter received a strong Jewish
education. It has strengthened his family’s connection to Judaism. Jacobson
said he attributed his two children’s strong Jewish identity and his son’s
desire to have a bar mitzvah to their positive experiences at Silverlake.

“Without JCCs, there will be a generation lost to their own
Jewish culture and heritage,” he said. “This is what shortsighted [leaders] at
JCCGLA and The Federation miss. You can’t make business-only decisions when it
comes to culture and community.”  

I’m a Survivor!

Fran Drescher has a very sexy voice.

No, really! As she tools around Los Angeles, the Queens-raised actress — who resonated with TV audiences for six seasons as Fran Fine on "The Nanny" — evinces only traces of her character’s trademark nasal New Yawk bray.

On this April day, Drescher converses in a lackadaisical, morning-after drone that is, quite frankly, downright seductive.

Yet the topic of conversation — uterine cancer — is not sexy. Drescher feels that it is imperative to talk about the deadly disease and why women need to be proactive in discerning it. Her new memoir, "Cancer Schmancer" (Warner Books, $24.95), in stores May 1, chronicles her own experience detecting and surviving uterine cancer. "Cancer Schmancer" also documents a new chapter in her life. When her best-selling autobiography "Enter Whining" was released in late 1995, Drescher was the envy of Hollywood both for her storybook romance to high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson and her serendipitous rise to fame in the 1990s. On a plane ride, the then-unknown actress sold her idea for "The Nanny" after pitching the concept to a CBS executive that happened to be seated next to her.

Now that’s all gone. As the 44-year-old actress writes in her new book, her 21-year marriage to Jacobson is over. The couple’s only love child, "The Nanny," (which they co-produced) was canceled in 1999. That same year, Drescher found herself at a crossroads. She was forced to rebuild her career and, for the first time, live on her own as a single woman. Then came the cancer.

Drescher got through this dark transition with the help of love.

"I had to call my parents. I always thought my mom would go through hysterics, and she was very strong," Drescher told The Journal.

Drescher also gained the support of her new boyfriend — an ex-"Nanny" staff member 16 years her junior — with whom she fell in love shortly before she was diagnosed. With great detail and exasperation, Drescher articulates in her book the tortured journey that finally led her to a proper diagnosis of her mysterious condition. She juxtaposes her youthful mindset, her young lover and their 20-something social circles with the menopausal symptoms — bruising, mood swings and postcoital cramping — which made her feel conscious of her age. Several years and eight doctors later, Drescher learned that she was in the early stages of uterine cancer, but that came only after a lot of research, self-exploration and determination to seek the truth.

Drescher sprinkles her East Coast wit into her writing, which includes some "Sex & The City"-style dish on her adventures in dating. She also speaks openly about how she felt after the passing of her beloved lapdog, Chester, her identification with Cher, and the disclosure that she’s a huge fan of the granola rock band Phish. Perhaps her most fascinating insights, however, relate to her candid take on her fabled marriage: how the codependence she shared with her husband was exacerbated in the aftermath of a traumatic brush with violence; how Drescher’s lifelong feelings of pleasing others sublimated her own fulfillment.

"After my separation, I went to a really quality therapy," Drescher said. "I realized that I had gone through difficult periods in my life and did not allow myself to feel the pain. I thought I always had to be the strong one. When I got the cancer, I decided this time, ‘I’m in pain, I’m in trouble, I need support.’"

Working on "The Nanny," it turns out, evolved into the perfect vehicle for the perfect husband-and-wife unit to invest their energies in public while actively avoiding intimacy in private.

Community reaction to "The Nanny’s" eponymous character has always been mixed. Some viewed Drescher as bold for portraying a Jewish woman as strong, smart and sexy. Others saw her as the ultimate negative stereotype. Drescher is unapologetic about her portrayal.

"That character was based off of real women that I grew up around," Drescher said, observing that, before her, there had never been a Jewish woman on network television "speaking Yiddish, going to temple, facing the prejudices of this world and rising to the occasion."

Besides, added Drescher, who is no fan of political correctness, anything goes in comedy.

Not so funny were some behind-the-scenes struggles. Even in a Jewish-heavy business such as entertainment, Drescher experienced pressure to alter her character’s ethnicity.

"I said, there’s no way this character is going to be Italian," she recalled. "It’s not that, as an actress, I can’t play Italian. But on TV, you have to work fast, and the most real, the most rooted in reality to me is Jewish. I wanted to do it closest to what I knew. I didn’t want to compromise or apologize for it because corporate or middle America or the Sun Belt wouldn’t embrace a Jewish character. And, in fact, they did first. Before New York and Los Angeles. They embraced her immediately."

Drescher, who will be honored as City of Hope’s Woman of the Year at the Sportsmen’s Club/Diamond Circle Chapter’s 54th Annual Spring Luncheon and Fashion Show on April 27, has no regrets about "The Nanny" — not even the price she paid for the show in her private life.

"I chose to have a career instead of a baby," Drescher said matter-of-factly, with only a hint of disappointment. "Only now am I psychologically ready." (Her ovaries have been frozen, and she hopes to conceive one day.)

Currently, Drescher is mulling over other decisions, such as whether to follow up this summer’s book tour with a one-woman show based on "Cancer Schmancer," or to host a daytime talk show. She is also writing screenplays and developing projects for MTV. The actress, whose first role was on the dance floor opposite John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," has come a long way from catering to other people’s feelings at the expense of her own.

"I have a lot of choices," Drescher said. "It’s a matter of what I feel up to doing. I don’t want to have to work as hard as I did on ‘The Nanny.’"

More than ever, she said she is comfortable with who she is.

"I’m very proud of my heritage and my people," she said. "I don’t consider myself religious, but I have a great respect and affinity for our people’s struggles and what we’ve achieved, despite the obstacles. And that’s something other ethnicities could look to."

For information on attending City of Hope’s April 27 benefit at 9:30 a.m. at the Beverly Hilton, call Jason Gudzunas at (213) 202-5735, ext. 26206.