A Visit with a Rabbi

Text and photos by ROXY KIRSHENBAUM
May 2013

It all began with a simple phone call. I reached out to Rabbi Charles Rudansky for my master’s project dealing with palliative care and we discussed his work briefly over the phone one afternoon. It was an enlightening experience, but not nearly as illuminating as what was to come just a few months later. Not thinking it would be possible, I asked the rabbi if I could shadow him as he made house calls to patients enrolled in the Metropolitan Jewish Hospice program. He agreed.

Over the course of about 3 or 4 months, I met the rabbi at his patients’ homes at least once a week. Sometimes we would drive together across the city to the next home, discussing how he copes with his difficult job. Rabbi Rudansky is an important figure for his patients, many of whom are elderly and dying from old age and disease.

Watching the patient/rabbi interaction as they chatted about everything from their health to the weather was as beautiful as it was sad. Each time I left a shoot, I felt an overwhelming need to call my own grandparents, just to say hello and to tell them I loved them.

Many of these patients have little to no family and depend on the rabbi’s visits for company. Spending just under an hour with the patients and moving about the room taking their photograph seemed to excite them in some way. For that moment, they felt special as they received attention from both the rabbi and myself. Some patients spoke about feeling lonely and enjoying the company, one patient saying, “I spend most of the day in the dark,” referring to her blindness. Conversation filled with familiar and unfamiliar voices offers a kind of comfort because someone is there.

Coming out of this project, I feel as if I have changed. Not only do I appreciate my youth and health more, but also I believe I have learned a lot about aging and more importantly, the human condition. Numerous patients seem to be searching for their purpose in life at the end of life and are concerned about their legacy. Little things like having a holiday dinner surrounded by family or mustering up the energy to walk to the park with an aide are fundamental accomplishments when your body no longer works the way it used to. If I in any way contributed to an instant of happiness or comfort for any of the patients I have had the pleasure of meeting that alone makes this project worthwhile.

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