“Hospital” and “hospitality” derive from the same Latin root “hospes,” meaning “stranger” or “guest,” so it’s no wonder that the two go hand in hand.
On Sept. 22, Jefferson Abington Hospital prioritized hospitality with the opening of the Bikkur Cholim kosher food pantry, a resource for Jewish hospital guests abiding by kosher laws or keeping shomer Shabbos.
In addition to providing kosher food options in a stocked fridge, the pantry contains two kosher sinks and microwaves for meat and dairy goods, a manual washing station, chair and recliner, and ritual items such as Siddurim, Shabbat candles and kiddush cups.
“At Jefferson Abington, we always want to do the right thing, and this felt like the right thing for the community,” said Kristine Medley Farmer, director of development for the Abington Health Foundation, the nonprofit that provides financial support for Jefferson Abington. “That really speaks to the vision for the community that we have and for who we want to be for the community.”
The kosher pantry was created by the Bikkur Cholim in Philadelphia, an organization devoted to providing accommodations to observant Jews. Jefferson Abington contributed $150,000 toward building and sustaining the pantry and raised $20,000 in community support, and Elkins Park resident Miriam Dachs and her family contributed additional funds and led community fundraising efforts for the pantry.
For the Dachs family, support for this project was personal. Seven and a half years ago, Dachs gave birth to Raphael, a micro-premature baby at 23 weeks at Jefferson Abington. Because of the baby’s medical complications, Dachs, an Orthodox Jew, needed to remain at the hospital nearly all hours of the day.
The hospital staff willingly accommodated Dachs’ needs: They provided a private room for her to stay overnight during Shabbat and allowed her to store kosher food in the staff refrigerators.
When her baby needed emergency brain surgery less than a year after his birth — right around Passover — Dachs stayed with him at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which already had a Bikkur Cholim kosher pantry well-stocked with kosher for Passover food options. She realized the impact a pantry could have at Jefferson Abington.
“They were lovely. They really were,” Dachs said of the hospital staff’s accommodations. “But I kept on thinking: What is everyone else doing? What are all the other patients or the visitors that are staying with the patients who can’t go home on the Shabbos or the holidays doing? In the back of my mind, I said, ‘We need a kosher pantry.’”
During her long visits and stays at Jefferson Abington, Dachs encountered many Jewish families who had similar needs for religious accommodations. Located in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, the hospital provides care for an area heavily populated with Jewish families.
Three years after Raphael’s birth, Dachs began the process of organizing a kosher pantry at Jefferson Abington. She reached out to Bikkur Cholim, which, before opening Jefferson Abington’s kosher pantry, had established six other pantries at local hospitals, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and CHOP.
Bikkur Cholim, which translates to “visiting the sick” also has two apartments in University City that are accessible to Jewish hospital visitors looking to walk to and from hospitals on Shabbat.
While the pantry’s timeline was hindered by COVID, Dachs reached out to hospital administration and cleared her idea for the pantry. Since its opening two months ago, the pantry has regularly been in use. Dachs still visits weekly to stock the fridge and check on patients.
According to Bikkur Cholim’s Susie Wohlgelernter, the purpose of the pantry goes beyond just providing “a cup of coffee and a danish” to those who visit it. The Bikkur Cholim recently received a call from someone in Israel whose elderly mother, a Philadelphia resident, had fallen and was staying at Jefferson Abington. She had no other family living in the area.
“Within a half hour, maybe an hour, I put out the word and somebody went over, went to visit her mother and was able to report back to her in Israel,” Wohlgolernter said. “And it was just, you know, the peace of mind.”
Though the Bikkur Cholim of Philadelphia has been around since 1999, it’s been only recently that local hospitals have been more receptive to providing culturally competent accommodations to observant Jewish communities, Wohlgolernter said.
“It was interesting that it took 20 years for us to push and then, all of a sudden, it’s pretty open,” she said. “And I think it’s just the climate in the country that is more accommodating for cultural diversity and willing and wanting to help all types of people.”