July 16, 2021

Lest we forget the coronavirus pandemic year

By Barbara Sofer

Last Tisha Be’av, July 29, 2020, Hinda Hekelman was too sick to fast. She was coughing and weak from the ravages of COVID-19.

“My husband, Chaim, and I don’t know where we were infected, but we think it was in the neighborhood synagogue, when we went to a celebratory kiddush,” says Hekelman, 59, a retired bank officer.

“Back then, it wasn’t easy to get a corona test, and my local doctor told me to wait to see if the cough subsided. A few days later, my husband and I went to the supermarket in our [Jerusalem] neighborhood of Ramot. I noticed a sale on fabric softener, but you had to buy three containers. I thought I might try a different fragrance, so I opened the bottles. None of them seemed to have any fragrance.

“By then, I knew that loss of smell is a coronavirus symptom. We stopped our shopping and drove back to the health fund office.

“At 1 a.m. I got a message on my phone that I was positive. Then they tested Chaim, who was positive, too.

“Somehow, from the moment I knew I had COVID-19, I was determined to be a volunteer in the corona wards as soon as I recovered. I’d lost my sister two years earlier to cancer, and I saw how important it was for us to be by her side. A hospital can be so lonely.”

Two months later, on Yom Kippur, Hekelman felt well enough to volunteer. Chaim, a gourmet kosher caterer whose business was closed because of the pandemic, decided to volunteer, too.

They’d heard that a volunteer program for the COVID-19 wards – the first in the world – was initiated at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.

Hinda Hekelman contacted religious volunteer coordinator Nurit Shatz, who directed her to the volunteer orientation program for COVID patients. They learned how to put on the astronaut-looking protective suits and head covers – she, over her wig – and what their role would be.

By the Sukkot holiday in October, three times a week they were driving from their home in Ramot to the iconic round building that housed the Hadassah corona departments, donning the cumbersome protective suits, and providing comfort and conversation to patients.

In the orientation, they learned what they could and shouldn’t do to stay safe and follow hospital protocol. They learned, for instance, to serve tea with a straw.

Says Hekelman, “There are no words to describe the dedication of the doctors and nurses, but they didn’t have an extra minute. Patients are so happy when someone has time to sit down and converse with them.

“We would begin our shifts at 6:30 a.m. First stop was the Ezer Mizion volunteer office to pick up individualized wrapped cakes. Patients were usually too weak to tear open the wrappers by themselves.”

She felt a special bond with certain patients, such as the woman who insisted she talk to her at length every day, and another woman with a broken shoulder in addition to COVID-19 who asked her to help her do ritual handwashing.

“Imagine how hard it was to do this without hurting her,” Hekelman says.

AND THEN, in late January, there was the patient named Yehoshua, a critically ill older man.

“Something drew me into his room, even though he wasn’t on my usual visit routine,” says Hekelman. “He was ventilated and very sick, but his face was almost shiny – it’s hard to describe. I saw his vital signs looked very bad. I called a nurse named Abigail. She told me gently that this patient was approaching the end of his life. She and I recited Psalms.

“Suddenly I knew what I had to do. At my request, Abigail brought me a siddur. I told this man whom I didn’t know that I was going to say vidui, the confessional before dying, for him.”

According to Jewish law, someone can say the confessional for you when death is imminent, but usually this is a family member or a rabbi. She had never been with a dying person before. Hinda Hekelman’s hands shook as she read aloud the prayer of final reconciliation with God.

Three times, Hekelman repeated the affirmation that the Lord is King and the name of His glorious kingdom forever. And then, as Yehoshua breathed his last breaths, she managed to say in his name “Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Chaim was already in the car and unaware of the drama upstairs in the corona department. Only when Hinda got into the car did she burst into tears, sobbing as she told her startled husband what had happened.

“You have done the truest loving-kindness, hessed shel emet,” he comforted her.

Continues Hekelman. “It was 11 a.m. We went to do our planned errands and shopping in the Geula neighborhood. At 2:50 p.m. I came out of a flower shop on Yirmeyahu Street. Chaim was waiting for me in the car. He asked what the man in the hospital’s name was. I only knew Yehoshua. ‘Is this him?’ he asked, pointing to a photo on a religious website on his phone. I nodded.

“There was a call for anyone who could spare the time to come to Yehoshua’s funeral. He was a convert and had no family in Israel. The funeral was scheduled for 3 p.m.

“Off we drove to the Shamgar funeral hall. When I saw that we were the only mourners, I cried hard again.

“The burial society workers asked how we were related to the deceased. When we told them, one of the undertakers said in a loud voice. ‘Reb Yehoshua! You are entering the world to come with the prayers of a mother in Israel who has said the confessional for you. Now, you must be her advocate and protect her from heaven.’

“They asked my husband if he would mind saying kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Since then, Chaim has been saying kaddish for Yehoshua three times a day. A memorial candle burns for Yehoshua all the time in our home, as it did for my parents when they passed away. I’m sure God led me to Yehoshua’s bedside.”

How does Hinda feel? “Very lucky. Not everyone gets such an opportunity to do a kindness like this for a stranger. You have no idea what a feeling of satisfaction I have, and how inspired I feel to do more good deeds. It’s that way with hessed, when you do a kindness; you get more than you give.”

On this eve of Tisha Be’av we remember the lack of kindness that brought about the destruction of our ancient holy Temples. May we, like Hinda Hekelman, bring the light of hessed into this world.