‘A Hospital Is A Very Holy Place’


Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski finds an empty seat on the 8:12 from Valley Stream and takes a few photocopied pages with Aramaic printing from his briefcase. By the time his LIRR train reaches Penn Station, he’s completed the day’s daf yomi Talmud study.
A brisk walk cross-town, and he is at his office at NYU Medical Center, First Avenue and 34th Street.
His business card identifies him as Jewish chaplain, “but they’ve changed it to hospital rabbi,” he says.
The rabbi, who lives in Elmont, L.I., has served at NYU since August. His office is a small pair of plain, former classrooms, filled with stacks of prayer books (he’s recently started a daily mincha service for patients, visitors and hospital staff), electric menorahs (patients can’t light real candles in their rooms), and a small tefillin bag (“It’s a spare pair.”) for use by male patients who don’t have their own.
“My computer is supposed to arrive today,” Rabbi Ozarowski says, looking at the empty spot on his desk. He needs it to make his list of Jewish patients in Tisch Hospital and the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation, two parts of NYU Hospital. In lieu of computer, the rabbi walks to three or four offices at NYU each morning — “I probably do at least a couple of miles a day” — compiling his own master list from various departments. “It’s a shlep,” he says. “It just takes so long to get this done.”

The palliative care meeting starts at 10:10 a.m. Rabbi Ozarowski, in a black suit with a blue crocheted kipa on his head, sits at a table surrounded by white-frocked physicians and nurses. They are discussing the patients who died yesterday, and the care of other terminally ill men and women in NYU.
“Joe was on the scene very shortly” after one patient died, surrounded by family, “and was very helpful,” the doctor at the head of the table declares.
Rabbi Ozarowski acknowledges the praise with a nod of his head and explains his role comforting the grieving relatives. “I was representing God at that moment whether I liked it or not.”
The medical professionals do most of the talking, trading diagnostic evaluations and scientific argot. Rabbi Ozarowski tells a short tale about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chasidic movement, to end the meeting on an upbeat note.

Rabbi Ozarowski, who served as spiritual leader of the Elmont Jewish Center for 12 years, has been involved in chaplaincy on Long Island and at the National Center for Jewish Healing in Manhattan. He’s picked up some medical nomenclature on the job.
“I don’t know every one of the terms,” he says, “but I know enough to get along.”
In 1995 he wrote “To Walk in God’s Ways: Jewish Pastoral Perspectives on Illness and Bereavement,” based on a paper he wrote in rabbinical school and on a score of years in the rabbinate.
“Much of what I’m doing here is playing out what I wrote,” the rabbi says. Dealing with the infirm and their kin. Giving them hope. Helping them mourn.
“I never know what to expect,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “There are always surprises.”

The rabbi types his password on a computer at a nurse’s station at 11:19 a.m. and gets his first list of Jewish patients. By the time he’s logged on to two other computers, Rabbi Ozarowski has accumulated 49 sheets of patient names. He underlines 81 names. “There’s no way I can visit every single Jewish patient here, even if I’ve identified them.” Some patients don’t indicate a religious affiliation when they’re admitted to the hospital. “There are hundreds of Jewish patients here.” First priority is patients who have requested to see a rabbi or whose name was given to Rabbi Ozarowski by a loved one.

Beeper on his belt, clipboard in hand — it holds photocopies of Hebrew prayers for the ill, a directory of hospital phone numbers and the rabbi’s list of Jewish patients — Rabbi Ozarowski spots an elderly man with a big black yarmulke being wheeled on a gurney at 11:32 a.m.
“Shalom aleichem,” he says. “I’m Rabbi Ozarowski. I’m the rav of the hospital.”
The elderly man offers his hand.
“I just wanted to welcome you,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “I want to wish you a refuah shleima,” a complete recovery.”

Rabbi Ozarowski estimates he sees 250 patients in Tisch and Rusk each month. Usually he talks to them in English. “My Ivrit [Hebrew] is good. “I’m trying to brush up on my Yiddish. I’m having my father-in-law give me lessons in hospital Yiddish.”

The rabbi checks his phone messages at 12:05 p.m. “The computer isn’t coming today. It may come tomorrow.”
He discusses one patient’s case at the social work office, then swings by the emergency room, looking for “anybody who looks like they could use a rabbi.” Nobody today.

A woman complains to the rabbi at 2:04 p.m. about incessant pain. She’s not in shape for a visitor. “I’ll pray that Hashem will ease the pain,” Rabbi Ozarowski says, making his exit. He tells a nurse down the hall that the woman “seems very uncomfortable.”

2:09 p.m. A chasidic man, surrounded by family, seems comatose, unresponsive. Rabbi Ozarowski takes the man’s hand. “It’s Rabbi Ozarowski,” he whispers. “I stopped to say hello and to wish you Hashem’s brocha [blessing] to ease the pain.”

2:12 p.m. Rabbi Ozarowski asks a middle-aged man, “How are your spirits?”
“I don’t drink,” the man says.
“If you have your sense of humor,” the rabbi responds, “it’s an important tool.”

“Basically, I let them talk, if they want to talk about what’s bothering them,” Rabbi Ozarowski says.
“If they don’t…”
If a patient doesn’t feel like talking, a chaplain’s presence helps. Rabbi Ozarowski points to the midrashic account of God visiting Abraham after Abraham’s circumcision. The biblical story does not record any dialogue. “It’s Hashem’s presence that offers Abraham refuah.”

2:22 p.m. A young chasid is packing up, going home. “Baruch Hashem — you don’t need me anymore,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “This is one job when I can say I hope I don’t see you again.”

2:35 p.m. “Do you have a shul?” the parents of a young patient ask the rabbi. “This is my shul,” he answers. “I have a shul” — he still leads services at the Elmont Jewish Center — “but during the week I’m here.”

3:16 p.m. An elderly woman is asleep. Rabbi Ozarowski quietly takes out a business card at leaves it on her bedside desk. “Sorry I missed you,” he writes.

3:55 p.m. “Do you have any control over rooms,” the mother of a young woman asks Rabbi Ozarowski. The patient’s room is too warm, the woman is uncomfortable.
“I don’t know, but I’ll see what I can do,” the rabbi says. He listens to the mother’s complaints, then gives her a phone number from the list on his clipboard. He offers to bring up an electric candlestick for Shabbat. “First you turn it on, then make the brocha,” he explains — “like you do at home.”

“They don’t train you for this in yeshiva. There’s no shiurim [classes] for this,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “Part of pastoral training you learn by doing.”
Many of his rabbinic colleagues “don’t get it” — they don’t understand what he does as a hospital chaplain, he says. “Rabbis are trained to use our Gamora kopfs” — their analytical, Talmudic-sharpened minds. “The piece that is often missing is the ability to confront another human being and share their suffering.
“Sometimes you need to stop talking and start listening — listen to the words behind the words,” Rabbi Ozarowski says.
He’s better at this than he was when he started doing chaplaincy, he says. “Even though I thought I knew how to listen, I didn’t.”

4:13. Pediatrics. “I like coming to pediatrics,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “I’m exhilarated when I see these kids struggling and keeping their spirits.”
A young boy is sitting in a playroom with his tutor. The rabbi visits other youngsters. He comes back at the end of the tutor’s lesson. Rabbi Ozarowski talks to the boy in fluent Donald Duck, rubbing noses. The child smiles.
“We’re going to study Torah together,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. He hands the boy a small Chumash and they start reviewing the week’s Torah portion.
“Can we do three more psukim [verses]?” the boy asks.
“As much as you want,” Rabbi Ozarowski says. “I’m not your teacher. I’m your friend.”
“One more?
“OK, one more,” the boy asks a few minutes later.
The rabbi kisses the boy’s head. “I’m proud of you,” he says.

Most people find hospital to be frightening places, Rabbi Ozarowski says. He doesn’t. “A hospital is a very spiritual place. A hospital is a very holy place.” He often recites Psalms and misheberach blessings, with patients. “There are a lot of blessings on the job. You give them and you get them.”
According to Jewish belief, God hovers near the infirm. “God’s presence,” the rabbi says, “is at the head of every sick person.”

5:26 p.m.
“Are you up to learning today?
The teen from Borough Park, in the hospital for a long time with a muscular disease, is eager to learn with the rabbi.
Each day they study the parsha, as chavrutas, or partners.
For the young chasid, removed from his own environment, the time with Rabbi Ozarowski is a taste of yeshiva.
“It’s as if you saved my life,” the teen told the rabbi one day.
“I thanked him for being my chavrusa,” Rabbi Ozarowski said.
Time is up today. The rabbi closes his Chumash. “This is a good place to stop. “I want to catch a boat” — he takes a ferry across the East River to Queens — “and see my kids tonight.”

P.S. Rabbi Ozarowski’s computer was delivered four days later.