Person with thought bubbles. Clockwise: Yad Sarah, Gemilut Hasadim, Hevra Kadisha, Hesed Committee, Bikkur Holim

As pictured above, bikkur holim efforts go by many names. The objective of this unit is to think about the name that was chosen for your volunteer group or, if you are in the process of establishing a group, the names you are considering.

Whether you are establishing a bikkur holim society for the first time or reinvigorating an existing group, take some time to think about what type of service your community needs.

Look at the illustration above of some societies frequently found in Jewish communities. If you are unfamiliar with some of them, look them up on the Internet.

Image of a head with a question mark inside. What are some associations you have with each of these names? See how each of these designations “sits” with you and how you think it would be perceived in your community.
Image of a pad and pencil  What services do you know or believe your community would benefit from? At this point, don’t bother narrowing down your ideas or evaluating whether or not you have the resources. Think broadly:
  • Visiting patients in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities?
  • Visiting homebound people?
  • Arranging transportation to synagogue for the elderly or disabled?
  • Arranging for meals or pick-up of medication from pharmacies?
  • Accompanying someone to doctor’s appointments?
  • Assisting families who recently gave birth? Someone who is chronically ill? Disabled? With what services?

At this point, the sky is the limit. If you aren’t sure what services you will offer, you can look at these websites for ideas:

The Jewish Board logo UJA Logo JCC Association of North America logo

Image of a head with a question mark inside.Take a moment to think about what the term bikkur holim conveys to you.

  • What images does it bring up?
  • If you haven’t done so yet, take down some notes about how you would explain to someone what your volunteers do and what bikkur holim means.
  • Can you think of some problems or misunderstandings that the name you have chosen for your group might cause? If your group already exists, have the volunteers encountered any issues when introducing themselves as “bikkur holim volunteers”?

Below is the account of a bikkur holim visit by a student in a rabbinical school.

Case Study: My Bikkur Holim That Wasn’t

Susan might very well be the “youngest 80-year-old you’ll have ever met.” She signs all of her emails with the epithet “Aging to Perfection.” This was my first visit with her, and as I headed up to Susan’s apartment, I was a bit nervous. Susan told me a little about herself, her children and grandchildren, and her employment in the public sector. She was proud of the movements in which she had participated: second-wave feminism, civil rights, protests against the war in Vietnam, and the War on Poverty.

As we grew more comfortable with each other, Susan also told me of her Jewish journey. She mentioned her upbringing in the classical Reform movement and lamented the absence of God that she felt in that community. She spoke passionately of her affiliation with Reconstructionism, and the increased spirituality that she has found there. Though we did not talk about God at great length or in depth, we did (perhaps ironically) talk about the importance of being able to talk about God and incorporate God into our religious lives. This line of conversation reminded me of the presence of God in the room, and made our encounter feel like a holy one.

I did feel that my presence made an improvement in Susan’s emotional well-being. Although she was not acutely ill, she told me that the greatest challenge she was facing was the cold weather. A lung condition made it difficult for her to be outside in such cold, and the threat of storms, such as the blizzard a few weeks earlier, made her feel powerless and vulnerable. In light of that suffering, she repeatedly mentioned the importance to her of having visitors so she was not alone and could maintain contact with the outside world while spending much of her time indoors. She appreciated my visit and those of others (including friends and two high school students who visit her occasionally). It was clear that my physical presence provided companionship and mitigated Susan’s potential loneliness.

In addition to concerns about loneliness, boredom, and vulnerability, Susan also mentioned in passing that she does not want to be sidelined to part of “a circle of elders” to sit and give advice; she wants to remain in the part of the community where decisions are made. She said something about not wanting to be discarded in her old age, which I immediately associated with Psalms 71:9: “Do not cast me aside in old age; when my strength is gone do not abandon me.” . . .

By most metrics, Susan is not a holah (sick person): she does not self-define as such, and in fact referred to herself as healthy many times throughout the visit. As far as I am aware, her perspective on her own health is not one of denial or minimizing; despite her stated mild lung issues and back pain, she seemed healthy and able to take care of her own needs.

Nearly all of the people with whom I was put in touch were elderly, but not all of them were sick. My visit with Susan raised several issues with the way that bikkur holim is practiced in the American Jewish community. In a culture, such as our larger American society, that places extreme value on youth, the elderly are pushed to the margins. Due to demographic and sociocultural factors, many older adults live alone, and they may need help from visitors in the form of assistance with tasks or just assuaging of loneliness and other negative emotional states.

Since many synagogues have bikkur holim societies, the project of visiting the elderly has fallen under the purview of these already existent groups. This responsibility makes sense, given the often blurry line between illness and old age, and the similarity in the types of training and practices relevant to visiting both the sick and the elderly. Nonetheless, combining these two different mitzvot makes me uneasy. I believe it runs the risk of categorizing old age as an illness, a state from which one seeks relief. I worry that labeling visiting the elderly [in this way] is a mere refraction of the Western value of youth, thus further marginalizing the elderly while purporting to help them.

Indeed, this concern was also evident in my visit with Susan. Though I was initially unsure of the purpose of my visit, it became clear to me that Susan wanted to meet with me because she felt very strongly that I should be exposed to older adults who are “busy living, not dying.” She explicitly wanted me to meet her (and hopefully others, in the future) because she wanted to show me that some elderly people are healthy, and they have different needs, concerns, and places in society than their peers who are sick. In her desire to prove this to me, Susan implicitly highlighted and strived to counter the Western notion that old age and illness are synonymous. Like Susan, and especially after getting to know Susan, I believe that this distinction is crucial if we are to treat the elderly with the respect they deserve.

—Rabbinical student
(used by permission)

Image of a head with a question mark inside. Now that you have read the student’s account of this visit and some of the issues the student and Susan raised, what do you think about them? Do you think Susan’s criticism of being labeled “sick” because she receives support through a bikkur holim network is justified, or do you disagree?

Read also the following quote and discuss:

The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, 72
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966)

Now that you have thought about your own community’s needs and your own emotional associations to some of the names chosen for volunteer groups, you might want to look at some of the history of bikkur holim societies. In volume 1 of The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution,[1] the great 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Wittmayer Baron noted that “bikkur holim” became the standard name of Jewish societies for visiting the sick in Saragossa, Spain, in the late 1300s (page 362) and that “the association for the visiting of the sick in Fürth [Germany], according to its statute printed in 1818, was designed to extend aid only to members of several years standing” (page 364). On pages 327 to 330 of volume 2, Baron deals more extensively with Jewish charitable hospices and hospitals and visiting the sick.

Image of a head with a question mark inside.In light of the case study and excerpts you have just read:

  • What role did bikkur holim societies play in the past?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of choosing or rejecting the name “bikkur holim” for your group? Compare your current answer with your previous notes about this.
  • Who is a holeh/holah (sick person)?
  • What is the scope of bikkur holim? (What is the extent of services that your group offers or should offer?)
  • What names other than bikkur holimwould you consider? (Here are some examples: Hesed Committee, Va’ad Hesed, Hevrat Ansche Hesed, Bikkur Committee.)
  • Describe the relationship between bikkur holim and other volunteer groups in your community.
  • What are some of the differences among the groups? Where are there similarities? Do you have volunteers who are active in more than one group?
  • Can you identify how you might draw on these differences as a potential for sustaining, retaining, and recruiting other volunteers?

No matter what name you have chosen for your bikkur holim group, there will most likely always be some gray area. But now you have thought about this and can explain your thoughts.

[1] Salo Wittmayer Baron, The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America: 1948).

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