Tamara Green entered the world of chronic illness, unexpectedly, one morning 35 years ago. "I woke up feeling like I’d been pushed down a flight of stairs," she says. "Every part of me was charley-horsed. I was nauseous." Years of misdiagnoses (she has a severe disease of the connective tissue, like the one that afflicted the late Norman Cousins) were followed by decades of treatment (drugs, crutches, feeding tubes, physical therapy).
Now a professor of classics at Hunter College, she organizes bikur cholim (visiting the sick) activities in her Upper West Side neighborhood, and is a leader in the new movement that uses ancient Jewish practices to help the infirm.
Green, 57, will discuss her experiences, coping with her continuing medical problems, during "Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Explorations in Jewish Spiritual Care," an all-day conference Dec. 11 sponsored by UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission. It is geared for health and human service professionals, and lay people.
Speakers will include rabbis and chaplains, physicians and nurses, social workers and people, like Green, who have brought a Jewish perspective to their illness, as well as Harry Waizer, a 9-11 survivor. The first-such conference on the topic sponsored by UJA-Federation will emphasize the growing relationship between conventional medicine and complementary treatments, which Jewish institutions are using to help members of the community face a variety of problems.
Public opinion polls, anecdotal evidence and scientific studies indicate that a growing number of Americans find solace in religion when faced with medical crises.
The trend toward a patient-driven sense of spiritual wellness, employing traditional prayers and blessings, has caused a change of thinking in the medical profession, which traditionally had an empirical orientation, and the Jewish community, which emphasized chaplaincy and bikur cholim visits by rabbis and other trained professionals.
The movement can be traced, in part, to Cousins, late editor of Saturday Review magazine, who documented his personal regimen against chronic illness and founded the Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) school of healing. Alternative forms of treatments (herbal cures and acupuncture have achieved mainstream acceptance), and prayer (often in Jewish-run support groups for the chronically and terminally ill, the bereaved, the aging and the infertile) are among its facets.
"We’re looking at the power of community as a healing entity," says Roberta Marcus Leiner, managing director of the Caring Commission. "The concept of Jewish spiritual care is not only delivered through chaplains, but can be integrated into our mainstream Jewish settings."
American Jews, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. and the ongoing violence in Israel, are particularly open to the spiritual healing movement, experts say.
"Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have heard talk about spiritual healing, even in a rabbinical seminary," says Carol Hausman, coordinator of the Washington Jewish Healing Network.
Today, says Hausman, who will speak about "Spiritual Care in Support Groups" at Wednesday’s conference, a few dozen similar Jewish healing groups have formed around the United States. "We concentrate more on healing … on the lessons people have learned from their losses … than on the [physical or emotional] problem," she says. "We use as many tools of Jewish healing as we can: niggun [evocative melodies], prayer, study. People then create their own midrash," their own narrative of their illness.
The Washington center was founded seven-and-a-half years ago; most Jewish healing centers began within the last decade. "There are lots of reasons," for the recent trend, Hausman says, citing the growing number of women in the rabbinate and a general return to spirituality in American society.
The lessons of the healing centers are applied at Jewish community centers and local Jewish Family Services, she says.
"Patients have demanded it," says Dr. Jerome Groopman, keynote speaker at the UJA-Federation conference.
"This was completely outside the scope of medicine" a generation ago, says Groopman, a best-selling author and chief of experimental medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "The medical schools … have been pressured by alternative healers. The medical establishment is coming to realize that they are shortchanging patients by not addressing this aspect of life."
Groopman, an observant Jew, says he will pray for a patient’s recovery, if the patient is agreeable, practicing what a Christian patient several years ago called "the medicine of friendship."
"It’s important that we are at the bedside to focus on the spiritual needs," he says, pointing out that the traditional misheberach prayer for an individual’s recovery asks God to "heal the soul" and "heal the body."
This dual approach is especially relevant among persons with terminal illnesses, Groopman says.
"Judaism is very much of this world," he says. "It addresses the pragmatic aspects of dealing. Because we are all mortal there will come a time when asking God to heal the body is not realistic. Asking to heal the spirit indicates that until the last breath of life there is the opportunity to heal the spirit when we can no longer heal the body. That spiritual dimension where hope never dies can be sustained to the end."
"Everyone goes through this," Tamara Green says. For her, with a weakened immune system, this is daily. Her heart, lungs and stomach are affected. "A lot of pain, chronic pain," she says. "You name it, it hurts."
At the UJA-Federation conference, she will offer the perspective of someone "who in likelihood, barring a miracle, isn’t going to get any better."
"It’s very isolating to be ill," Green says. "It makes you different."
"I’m an academic: I’m big on texts," Green, a student of Kabbalah, says. One of her favorite biblical passages is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. "The sun came up the next morning," she says, summarizing the story, "and Jacob limped."
The story’s meaning to Green: Jacob passed his spiritual test, but a physical symptom remained.
A board member of the New York Jewish Healing Center, Green says her illness is "something I need to live with but not be afraid of."
"How do I come to terms with where I am? How do I get through another day? Is there any way to be spiritually healed if I’m physically not going to get any better?" she asks rhetorically. "I work at it. I work at not feeling bitter, not feeling angry."
The conference "Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Explorations in Jewish Spiritual Care" takes place Wednesday, Dec. 11, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., at UJA-Federation headquarters, 130 E. 59th St. in Manhattan. It is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center Association, the National Center for Jewish Healing, and the New York Jewish Healing Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. For information, call (212) 836-1865.