Attending to a Palestinian Family on Hanukkah/Ramadan From December 1999

May 17, 2024

The trauma pager beeped loudly as I went about my duties as on-call chaplain. It was December 1999, and I had been in training to become a chaplain for all of three months. The readout informed me that a five-year-old had fallen three stories out of his family's apartment window and was en route to the hospital. I headed to the critical care area of the ER and waited with the rest of the team. No one knew how serious the injuries would be; I expected severe brain or spinal cord trauma.

About 15 minutes later, the medics barreled through the doors with a little boy on a stretcher screaming bloody murder (I would later learn that the screaming is a good sign; what you do not want to see is a child who has gone quiet). The boy's mom followed, tears streaming down her face, blood staining her clothes, clutching a small girl who looked to be around two. I greeted her and showed her to a chair just outside the room where the doctors were examining her son. She looked at me with no comprehension and said, "No English," When I asked what language she spoke, she replied, "Arabic." I wondered what part of the Arab world she was from. I spent several minutes connecting a telephone with a translator from AT&T and began to ask basic questions: Where do you live? How did this happen? What medical conditions are relevant? My stomach did nervous flip-flops with the translator's answer to my first question: the family was from Palestine, in this country temporarily, but planning to return to the West Bank. The translator repeated, "the West Bank…in Palestine…in Israel." "Yes," I replied. "I'm Jewish. I know exactly what you're talking about." Could I handle this situation as a "chaplain newbie?" Could I handle the potential complications of my being Jewish while trying to comfort a Palestinian family with their child at risk of very serious injury?

A bit of background: in the years following 1948, many Palestinians had emigrated from their homes on the land that became the State of Israel. Palestinian Arabs are known for being highly entrepreneurial, educated, and skilled. They form the backbone of the professional classes in many Arab countries and have formed tightly knit, financially successful communities in Europe and the United States.

Today (in 1999), the Palestinians are close to achieving their original goal: a sovereign state in the land they have lived on for thousands of years, though they must share that land with the Israelis, who come from a people who have also lived on the land for thousands of years. The battle to achieve this goal has been arduous. It has included violent campaigns by Arabs and Jews and high-stakes, difficult negotiations. There is no consensus on either side; there is plenty of bitterness and blame to share all around. What resonates with me is that, in the midst of this political stew, science made its contribution with the recent announcement that DNA examinations confirm that the Arab people and Jews of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent share certain particular genetic markers. Like it or not, we truly are cousins.

So, here I found myself at a large urban children's hospital, at the end of Hanukkah and on the eve of Ramadan, a Jewish chaplain-in-training with Hanukkah symbols dangling from her earlobes, trying to comfort a Palestinian woman who understood no English. Soon, the boy's dad arrived with a Palestinian friend who spoke English. I ushered the group into the family consultation room, and we waited for the doctors to update us. Mom had allowed me to comfort her by putting my arm around her and holding her little girl. I asked the parents through their friend if they wanted to pray. Dad replied that he'd pray silently. He had no use for me. I stayed for a bit, then left to return to my other duties, promising to follow up after the boy's tests were complete.

Later in the evening, I returned to the ER and was told the boy had a broken collar bone, no more serious injuries, and was being admitted for the night. The boy was in his assigned room, but without his family. I found Dad a few minutes later, surrounded by friends, including the one from earlier. They had sent Mom and the little girl home, gone to dinner, and were now returning. I escorted Dad and his interpreter friend to the child's bedside. The nurse discussed the boy's medical condition and asked questions. I eyed the friend as the conversation swirled around me. He looked very much Israeli to me, with the same brown eyes I have. He eyed me as well and gave me a small, secret-handshake look. Are we enemies? Are we family?

I updated the two friends outside the room, promising that I would check on Dad during the night. They had families to return to, and tonight was the first night of Ramadan. They were grateful and gracious. It felt good to be playing for the same team tonight. I wrote my thesis on the origins of the Palestinian conflict. These men couldn't have known how sympathetic I am to the cause of Palestinian nationalism, though I also fear the violence wreaked on Israel in the name of that nationalism and disagree with tactics designed to obliterate Israel altogether. What these Palestinian men understood was that I took care of one of their own, even as symbols of my Jewishness dangled obviously in front of them. As I checked on Dad during the rest of my shift, he was deeply grateful for my assistance.

I called my work with this family a "double mitzvah." It's a mitzvah to work as a hospital chaplain…to be able to bridge such a difficult emotional and cultural gulf, if only for an evening, felt like a second mitzvah on top of the first. Hospital chaplaincy taught me how our humanity connects us, even when our religions are different. That is what the Jewish principle of "b'tzelem Elohim" means: each human is created in the image of God. This insight is even more penetrating when people are incredibly antagonistic on the surface, yet manage to connect on a deeply human level. I would have treated any family with the same dignity and care; it felt oh so good to be able to show that care, as a Jew, to a Palestinian family.

Can we ever get back even to where we were in 1999?

The author of this piece is a member of the URJ's North American Board.

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