St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, the Boston area’s largest Catholic hospital, is reaching out to a population that’s been expanding around its Brighton neighborhood: Orthodox Jews.
In a bid to attract more business from the Orthodox community in Brighton and nearby Brookline and Newton, the hospital last week dedicated the region’s first Bikur Cholim room, a space where observant Jews can visit family members who are patients during Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath running from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The room provides Hebrew prayer books and stocks kosher foods.
“It makes sense for us to serve a community that’s right in our backyard,” said John Polanowicz, a Stanford MBA who took over 15 months ago as president of the 291-bed St. Elizabeth’s. “Our interest was to let them know that we’re aware of their religious needs and preferences and we’re working hard to accommodate that.”
The move is part of a broader campaign by St. Elizabeth’s and its corporate parent, Boston-based Steward Health Care System, to strengthen its “cultural competence” and establish itself as a go-to community hospital system in Eastern Massachusetts. Among other changes, St. Elizabeth’s also has installed a foot bath for Muslim patients and employees, and hired more interpreters for patients who speak Russian, Portuguese, and African languages.
But the outreach to the observant Jewish community is unique, targeting a population that has sometimes felt uncomfortable at Catholic hospitals and gravitated historically to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 2½ miles away in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area.
Dr. Rebecca Schwartz, who is St. Elizabeth’s vice president of radiology and led the effort to open a Bikur Cholim room, said it was important to counter the “preconception” that the Brighton hospital wasn’t always welcoming. “Being a religious hospital is part of our mission,” she said. “Serving religious persons of all faiths is something that this institution values.”
At an evening reception last week marking the opening of the Bikur Cholim, a Hebrew term for “visiting the sick,” a small group of Hasidic Jews, some with traditional black hats and side curls, mingled with more than 50 guests and members of the medical staff. Among the guests was “Bostoner Rebbe” Naftali Horowitz, the Hasidic grand rabbi of Greater Boston.
“This has been an approach of many hospitals in the United States today that are sensitive to Jewish issues,” Horowitz said. “This [family room] is the first one for the Boston area. It’s a great credit to St. Elizabeth’s, being on the razor edge of community relations.”
The Orthodox population represents only about 3 percent of the roughly 220,000 Jews in the Boston area, but many live within a few miles of St. Elizabeth’s, said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, who also attended the hospital reception.
“Here you have Orthodox people who might have to go to the hospital on Shabbat,” said Shrage. “The rules for Shabbat are very strict. Where do you eat? You can’t take the elevator, you can’t spend money, you can’t drive. What St. Elizabeth’s is doing here is going out of its way to be sensitive to the Orthodox community that happens to be concentrated right in the area.”
Beth Israel Deaconess, a Harvard teaching hospital that specializes in complex care but also serves as a community hospital for thousands of residents of Boston and its suburbs, does not maintain a comparable family room specifically for Orthodox Jews, said Beth Israel spokesman Jerry Berger. “We try to be welcoming for all faiths,” Berger said.
In attracting Orthodox patients, St. Elizabeth’s has a key advantage: It is located within the Greater Boston Eruv, a geographic area covering parts of Brighton, Brookline, and Newton set up by religious authorities to enable observant Jews to carry babies, strollers, canes, and objects that might otherwise be forbidden to take outdoors during Shabbat. The Eruv does not extend to the Longwood area, where Beth Israel Deaconess and a cluster of other hospitals are located.
“This is the only hospital in the Eruv,” said Dr. Bernard Kosowsky, a St. Elizabeth’s cardiologist who, like Schwartz, is also an observant Jew.
After last week’s reception in a St. Elizabeth’s auditorium, Orthodox visitors made their way upstairs to the 700-square-foot Bikur Cholim, roughly the size of a two-bed patient room, where they watched Horowitz affix a mezuzah to the room’s doorpost. It’s a small case that contains a parchment with a Jewish prayer.
“With all our modern science and modern medicine, it’s very important that a patient feel comfortable in his surroundings, including his family,” he said.