One day last year Rabbi Levi Meier, the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was summoned to the room of an elderly Russian man in the ICU who had cancer.
He was in poor spirits, so Meier decided to bring in the Torah from the chaplaincy ark. The patient’s eyes lit up at the sight of the Torah that Meier, and volunteer Sandy Gordon, brought into a room.
“Can you please bring me some water to help me wash my hands?” the ailing man asked. He washed and said a blessing and asked the rabbi to place the Torah next to him. After a few silent moments, tears began to stream down the man’s face, which became much more animated. Finally he spoke.
“Today is my Simchat Torah,” he told the rabbi, referring to the long-passed October holiday that celebrates the joy of the Torah. And then the man began to sing: “Sisu V’simchu, V’simchat Torah, u tenu kavod La Torah!” (Rejoice and be merry on Simchat Torah and give glory to the Torah.)
“He went from not being able to raise a finger, to raising his arms and singing a childhood song in Hebrew,” said Gordon, who has been volunteering at Cedars since 1988, when she attended the University of Judaism’s two-year Wagner Human Services Training Program for paraprofessionals in psychological training. “His eyes became very clear, and his face seemed like he was a boy or a young man, and when he smiled, it really lit his face up.”
When Meier and Gordon left the room some 20 minutes later, Gordon asked the chaplain: “Why doesn’t a Jewish hospital have a Torah they can take around, if it’s so profound?”
Meier, who has served as the hospital’s Jewish chaplain for the last 28 years, quickly acknowledged the need. So Gordon set out to fill the gap by endowing a Torah in honor of her parents, Florence and Milton Slotkin. Meier commissioned scribes in Israel to create a special lightweight Torah that could easily be carried to patients’ rooms on a daily basis. The completed Torah arrived last January.
Much has been written about the role of spirituality and faith in benefiting health and healing, but the effects are difficult to prove. There is no question, though, that Cedars’ new Torah has been uplifting the spirits of Jewish patients. Meier hopes other chaplains will also adopt the idea.
“Since we got the Torah, we’ve been taking the Torah around to selected patients, and the experiences has been amazing. Unparalleled,” Meier told The Journal.
In his nearly three decades at Cedars, he said, “we’ve been doing very well with all the patients, but the response with the Torah has brought it to a new level.”
Meier, an Orthodox rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University with a doctorate in psychology from USC, is a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, and when he uses words like “amazing” and “indescribable” about the Torah’s effect on patients, it seems more than hyperbole.
Indeed, it is difficult to portray in words the powerful emotional pull people exhibit toward the chaplain with the Torah.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, “Lisa,” a 30-something actress with cancer and other ailments, has been hospitalized for 10 days. She lies wan and listless on her side, her pale, bony arms poking awkwardly out of a checked green hospital gown. The radio blares in the background but she doesn’t move; had her eyes not been open, staring into space, she might be mistaken for sleeping.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” the chaplain says as he walks into the room and turns off the radio. “I’m going to place the Torah next to you on the bed.”
He takes the blue-velvet-covered scroll and places it on the pillow within breath’s reach. With effort, Lisa slowly moves her hands to it. She closes her eyes and smiles, like a baby having a dream.
“Can you pray out loud? To me?” Lisa asks in a murmur after a few moments. “In Hebrew?”
Meier says she should repeat after him, and she does, inaudibly, her lips barely moving. “Shema. Yisrael. Hashem. Elokeinu. Hashem. Echad: Hear O’ Israel, The Eternal God is One.”
Meier recites a blessing that the holy angels and divine presence should surround her and give her a complete recovery. Lisa’s eyes are now closed again, her long fingers resting on the Torah. She breathes deeply, as if meditating.
Finally, the chaplain stands up to go, and reluctantly takes the Torah from her bedside.
“Tomorrow you will have an MRI,” he says on his way out, “so think about this, and this should give you some comfort.”
Down the hall, an 89-year-old Hancock Park rabbi awaits hip surgery.
“How nice, how nice,” says the ailing rabbi in a thick European accent upon seeing the Torah. After wiping his hands with a washcloth, he reaches to touch and kiss it, not expecting anything more. But the chaplain places the Torah at his bedside.
“Tonight we pray that the surgery will go well, but the best prayer is the one you say yourself,” the chaplain says and leaves the room as the old man’s voice, loud and cracking with emotion as he recites Tehillim, the Psalms, echoes in the hallway: “Eso eynay, el ha’harim, me’ayin yavot ezri….” (I raise mine eyes to the mountains/where will help come from/Help will come from God, creator of heaven and earth.)
After the chaplain has collected the Torah from the rabbi, he appears awed and shaken: “I don’t even know if King David said Tehillim like that.”
Unlike the old rabbi, most people the chaplain visits with the Torah are not particularly religious. Meier says the Torah rekindles the pintele (Yiddish for “spark” of Jewishness) in people, memories of Hebrew school or a bar mitzvah or a grandparent in the past and it helps them connect to the next generation as well.
For Meier, this work is not a “religious” mission, but a spiritual one that overrides distinctions of denominations and practice. “Although in the outside world, when people are healthy, they make a differentiation between Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, here there’s no distinction. There is the meaning of life, solitude, family, reconciliations — everyone is part of what we call “the experience of the human condition. It’s an experience that the Torah alleviates.”
As the Jewish chaplain at Cedars, Meier receives a list with the names of the all the Jewish patients in the hospital. Together with his assistant and a couple of volunteers, they visit the sick. The Torah, a holy object in itself, allows the chaplain to have immediate spiritual relationship with a patient that otherwise might take much longer to achieve.
The healing process is not always about getting better, Meier said.
“Healing means whole, and it also means holy, so we talk about the path of getting toward wholeness, even if a cure is not possible,” he said.
You can be whole in different ways, with yourself, with your family, with your children, with God, he said.
“It’s a common fallacy and myth that this job is very hard,” he said. “I find that when I don’t do this, it’s very difficult. I give meaning to people and they always to a little better. I don’t do miracles, but it’s beautiful to add meaning to a person’s life and to help them in the smallest way possible.”