A few months before she graduated from Rutgers University last year, Ahuva Strauss had a geographic epiphany—down the street from the apartment where she lived were two hospitals.
She was aware that the major institutions were there but she had given little thought to the patients inside. “I never realized how lonely some of them might be,” she says.
One day she asked herself: “Why aren’t we doing anything at the hospitals?”
Strauss approached Rabbi Avi Schwartz, who, with his wife Sara, serves as the OU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) couple at the New Brunswick, New Jersey university. OU-JLIC couples boost “key aspects of Jewish life in secular campus environments” on campuses across the United States and Israel.
Strauss asked the rabbi if he could find some chesed activity she could perform at one of the hospitals.
Rabbi Schwartz was able to meet Strauss’ request. He made some inquiries and discovered a place for her at the bedside of Chaya Rivkah Blank, an eight-year-old girl from Brooklyn who was hospitalized for treatment of pontocerebellar hypoplasia at nearby Children’s Specialized Hospital.
Pontocerebellar hypoplasia is a rare neurological disease, caused by mutations in one of several genes; its typical symptoms include impaired brain development, problems with movement and intellectual disability.
Chaya Rivkah, in a wheelchair, is non-verbal.
Chaya Rivkah’s mother, Tzivia, who has three children at home, tried to spend as much time as possible at the hospital, about an hour from the family’s home in Boro Park. She needed a break from the traveling.
“Ahuva stepped up,” says the rabbi.
Helping the Blanks became the mission of Strauss, who was raised in an Orthodox family in East Brunswick and had graduated from Bruria High School for Girls in Elizabeth.
Ahuva would keep Chaya Rivkah company, relieving the girl’s mother, and encouraging other OU-JLIC students at Rutgers to do it too. Strauss reached out to them— “bothered” them, she says—in person, and via a What’sApp group she created; ultimately about twenty men and women (and occasionally, their parents) pitched in, arranging a schedule that left Chaya Rivkah with companionship when she most needed it. Some students not only visited Chaya but stayed the night. The family was so grateful.
Helping a special needs child was familiar territory for Strauss; she had already volunteered with the OU’s Yachad program, dedicated to enriching the lives of Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families, as well as other such programs.
Strauss quickly became a familiar face at Chaya Rivkah’s bedside, going there several times a week. “I just talked with her like I would normally talk” to anyone else. “Sometimes I would sing to her.”
Strauss says she sensed that Chaya Rivkah understood her words. “You could tell that she was listening.”
What did Strauss sacrifice by spending so many hours in the hospital? Maybe some time with friends. Beyond that, “nothing,” she says.
People who hear about Strauss’ altruistic activities tell her that she is “so special,” she says.
Ahuva dismisses such praise. Her stints at the hospital weren’t that difficult, she says.
“I’m not so incredible,” Strauss says. “Anyone can do it” —anyone can reach out to other people. “Anyone can look outside of themselves [to help another].”
Strauss graduated from Rutgers with a degree in public health and a minor in biological sciences this past winter, and a week later made aliyah.
On her last visit to Chaya Rivkah, she told the girl that she was leaving the country and gave Chaya Rivkah a hug. “She kind of hugged back. She moved her head.”
Before she left the States, Strauss says, she did her best to line up volunteers who would keep Chaya Rivkah company in her absence.
Ahuva now lives in Jerusalem, studying Torah and serving as a madrichah (counselor) at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a school for advanced Torah studies for women.
At the Kotel, she often davens for Chaya Rivkah.
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
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