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Friday, April 18, 2014

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Healing that goes beyond the cure

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When a prominent member of the Jewish community was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, she learned of the U.S.-based Center for Jewish Healing. She writes in a private letter: “I inquired into the existence of a similar framework in Toronto, but was disappointed to hear that there was no such robust resource.”

In fact, the Toronto Jewish Healing Project was established in the mid-1990s by a number of concerned workers in the field. Etta Ginsberg-McEwan, a retired social worker, became its extraordinarily effective volunteer co-ordinator. Rabbis and lay people from across the spectrum of the community joined the committee. Others provided modest funds that enabled us to run groups, conferences for professionals and healing services.

After some years, it became clear that the program needed a stronger framework. Following the lead of large Jewish communities elsewhere, we handed over the reins to a local Jewish agency in the hope that it would expand the activities. It didn’t happen. As a result, some of the original initiators and other volunteers have now taken back the program in an effort to revive it.

The need for it has been articulated in the same letter: “I believe that for people going through personal difficulty and pain through serious illness and loss, the value of a resource for material, prayers and general guidance that draws on generations of Jewish wisdom and insight cannot be overstated.” This reflects a widely held view.

The letter also articulates the reason: “As soon as one’s present-day pain is seen in the context of the continuity of our lives and heritage, it becomes easier to develop the inner, spiritual resources necessary to go on living.” 

Hence the sense of loss: “Personally, I have found the absence of such a program a void in the community and wish it did exist. It certainly could have been a great source of comfort to me. As in so many other areas, resources are limited, but this need not be a high-cost service.”

Indeed it wasn’t. Most of the modest funds were spent on telephone, stationery and paid announcements. Those who are now restarting the program are looking for volunteers and, yes, money to cover basic expenses. Jack Kugelmass, a social worker and therapist, has agreed to co-ordinate the work for the time being.

He’ll be pleased to hear from potential co-workers and users, and individuals and institutions prepared to provide seed money. He can be reached at 647-873-4804 and at torontojewishhealing@gmail.com. More information can be found at www.torontojewishhealing.com.

Physical pain management and, hopefully, cure is the task of the medical profession. Judaism has always held doctors in high esteem. But there’s more to healing than cure. We all know people who’ve been cured but not healed and those who are healing without being cured.

Healing isn’t an alternative to medicine. It isn’t a form of psychotherapy or “the laying of hands.” Healing seeks to help people reach out to God. In the words of our liturgy: “Heal us, O Eternal, and we will be healed.” The same prayer praises God for granting us “complete healing for all our afflictions.”

God doesn’t cure. Doctors might. But God helps us to carry the burden of illness. Jewish sacred texts provide the context. Many who’ve come together to study in the hallowed way of Jewish learning testify that that they’ve been strengthened both by sharing their pain with others and learning from what tradition teaches. The pain hasn’t disappeared, but the experience of sharing and learning made it more bearable.

Heeding Holy Writ brings students in touch with the teachers of long ago. The ancients carried similar burdens as we do and asked similar questions. Asking the questions can be no less helpful than finding the answers. 

One of the important insights of this kind of study is the discovery that our forebears never lost hope and never gave up on God. They suffered no less than we do, but they sought to transcend the pain, at times even discern a purpose in it. And if they could find hope and faith, so can we. That’s the testimony of many who in the past have availed themselves of the Jewish healing program.

Its anticipated return to the Jewish community in Toronto – and hopefully, in time, to other places – will provide a new resource for Jews in need. It won’t remove problems, but it may make them smaller, and thus more bearable.

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