Celebrating the Goodness of Giving
By Ilene Bloch-Levy
One of the four workshops being offered by Beit Natan one July evening in Jerusalem’s Pearl Hotel was entitled, “The Gift Within Us”. Beit Natan, Jerusalem’s Women's Cancer Support & Resource Center, was celebrating its first decade, and inaugurating its second decade of distributing some very special kinds of ‘gifts’ to thousands of women and their families.
The 25 women who gathered in the workshop room, remarked on the oversized cards -- some carrying individual words in Hebrew and English and others, pictures -- randomly scattered on the floor. Each woman was asked to select a card that best represented her feelings. The choices they made, and the explanations they offered, were as inspiring as they were disparate.
These women -- like the 100 other women in attendance at this extraordinary event, and the many others who were not present -- were linked by a serious illness that had touched their lives -- either as patients, caretakers or mourners. The women hailed from different walks of life, represented various ages and expressed diverse religious beliefs.
With klezmer music gently playing in the background, and everyone hurrying to find her place in one of the workshops -- “Flower arranging”, “The melody within our hearts” or “The movement of communication -- giving and receiving” -- it was difficult to distinguish who was a caregiver, recovering patient, current patient or volunteer.
And, that is perhaps the essential beauty of Beit Natan, the organization that brought these women from Jerusalem’s many quarters, plus Ashdod, Kibbutz Massua, the Galilee, Afula and other towns and villages throughout Israel, to an evening in celebration of the goodness of giving, where the lines of giving and receiving are frequently blurred.
Abundance Can Have a Double Meaning
For many of the women, their journey with cancer has been a challenging one, impacting on every aspect of their lives. But surprisingly, in spite of the challenges, or perhaps because of them, the resounding theme that echoed throughout the corridors was, in fact, a belief that there was much for which to be grateful and hopeful.
Beit Natan offers a support system that enables women to overcome the feelings of isolation, and emotional and psychological pain that often drains them.
“Beit Natan evens the playing field for women suffering from cancer. We cross the health and social divides. We provide a place, where women can feel they are on an equal footing within a safe environment,” explains Chaya Heller Founder and Director.
The workshops that Chaya and her staff had planned were designed to help participants think about their lives on different levels and from different perspectives --from the practical to the spiritual, from the tangible to the intangible, from the individual to the family.
L., a heavy set 54-year old woman, had selected a card carrying the word ‘abundance’. “Normally, abundance means positive things. For me, the word meant the opposite. When I finally did marry, for the first time, at the age of 50, ten months later the doctors discovered I had breast cancer,” L. tearfully recounted. “But, in spite of this abundance of problems, I have found an abundance of blessings -- my husband has been unbelievably supportive, and of course there is Beit Natan.”
An Understanding Heart and Ear
Beit Natan, which began in a bomb shelter, and now resides in a secluded private home with a flower-laden path to the front door, in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, is largely staffed by volunteers, including recovered patients, and some paid professionals.
Its first project, Lev Rachel Hotline is manned by recovered cancer patients who handle any and all calls from women diagnosed with cancer. The trained volunteers manage more than 500 phone calls a year from women throughout Israel who need to unburden their hearts to someone else who ‘understands.’ After Lev Rachel’s successful launching ten years ago, Beit Natan spawned other programs, some of which enjoy international recognition.
One of those programs is the early cancer detection program. Representatives from both the Israel Cancer Association, original supporters of the program, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure (an international foundation in the field of breast health education and breast cancer screening and treatment) who has been supporting the program for the past three years, joined the event. Miriam May, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, explains why they support Beit Natan, "Komen is seeking to grow internationally, especially on the issue of advocacy, and this is really about advocacy, reaching out to people about screening, supporting people with cancer and having people to talk to someone who understands them...having an institution like [Beit Natan] is very important and a model of the kind of programs we want to support and grow."
Beit Natan's direct telephone outreach service for under-served women's groups (e.g. Orthodox women, age 50+, elderly Russian immigrants, etc.) initiates 10,000 calls annually. Callers educate and encourage the women to go for mammography exams. It has proven so successful -- boosted women undergoing mammography by 10-12% -- that Beit Natan has been asked to expand the program.
Beit Natan also offers support groups and individual counseling, as well as bi- annual retreats for women patients who welcome a desperately needed break from the routine of their illness.
Five years ago, Beit Natan opened yet another program -- Hatomechet -- one of Israel’s first volunteer home hospice visitation programs -- which sends specially trained volunteers to patients during end-of-life illnesses. These volunteers provide support and help directly to the patients and often their families. This program, supported by the UJA-NY Federation, has recently expanded outside of Jerusalem to the north (Afula based) and south (based in Ashdod) and representatives from kibbutzim in the south had a chance to meet with their counterparts from the Galilee during the workshop sessions.
Closing the Circle
Coping and living with cancer requires untold energy, strength and determination. Who knows this better than the women of Beit Natan who gathered on this balmy summer evening overlooking Jerusalem’s ancient walls.
What these women came to learn, or rather have learned, is that the strength of receiving from Beit Natan is matched only by the strength of giving.
Forty year old E. picked the card that said “Renewal”. “Just when I thought I was at the lowest point in my life, I called Beit Natan and the woman who answered the phone said, ‘We have a new course starting next week. Can you join?’ I did. They have given me the strength and self-confidence that has made all the difference in my life.”
Perhaps, Chaya Heller’s summed up best when she spoke to the women from her own heart and life experience. “Anyone with cancer knows how precious and sweet each moment of life is. At Beit Natan, we receive the greatest chessed when we see a person in her darkest moments and can help light them up.”
from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine