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At Mayo Clinic, Chabad A Steady Presence For Patients and Families

By , Rochester, MN

( Mayo Clinic, 10 p.m. At her mother’s urging, a pale eighteen-year-old girl lies perfectly still on an exam table. Her heart condition is so severe and complex that she and her mother flew in from Tel Aviv for surgery.

“I am so relieved you are here,” the mother, also pale with jet lag and worry, said in Hebrew to Rabbi Dovid Greene.  Without Rochester’s Chabad representative, her communication with the doctor would falter inside a language gap. The nuances of her concerns would be lost without accurate translation into English and into the special speech ways only a native Minnesotan like Rabbi Greene could know.

As Rabbi Greene helped the Israeli patient and the doctor understand each other, his wife Chanie was cooking meals for patients hungering for a home-cooked meal, the only kosher food in a city where the nearest kosher restaurant is 75 miles away.

Late as it was, being out at 10 p.m. wasn’t unusual for the Greenes. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of late nights. It’s been this way since they began as Chabad representatives serving the Jewish community of Rochester and the Jewish patients at the Mayo Clinic, because, according to Mayo Clinic neurologist Dr. Michael Silber, the Greenes “go to extreme lengths to help others.”

Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide describes emotional well-being and mental health as “major health issues in their own right. But they can also greatly affect physical health.” Researchers have correlated positive emotional states and better surgical outcomes, stronger immune systems. In this sense, the Greenes’ work can be said to augment the care provided to 250,000 patients at the Mayo Clinic each year. 

“Rabbi Greene is warm, affable, a real treasure,” Jim Zane, a former clinic patient told Still edgy from his struggle with a serious, life-threatening condition, Zane consented to a brief interview only because “Rabbi Greene made me feel loved, needed and wanted. He made me comfortable.”  
Still later, back at his computer, a fresh screen of new email requests awaiting him. There were ten new patients asking for his help this week, a sliver of the estimated 1100 who come into contact with the Greenes each year; a psychiatrist from out of the country is hoping Rabbi Greene can tell him where to find a short-term apartment for his stay after surgery (his response takes into account his expert knowledge of options for different budgets, insurance coverage details); a rabbi writes that a Jewish inmate will become a patient at the nearby Federal Medical Center. (Rabbi Greene offers to visit him on his regular rounds); a Mayo consulting surgeon inquires when Rabbi Greene will be available to help with additional Hebrew translating (Rabbi Greene makes time); a full-time Rochester resident inquires about an upcoming fast day (Rabbi Greene clarifies a point of observance).

“The patients who come all the way out here are courageous. They have exhuasted the abilities of their local doctors and specialists, and are still hopeful,” said Rabbi Greene. “What we do is see what they need. We do not seek to offer them answers or give them advice. We are there to listen, to be family.”

Offering presence is how Rabbi Greene, using the lingo of his nearly complete clinical pastoral education, sums up his mission. But offering food is a goodly part of the Greenes’ connection with patients. On a quiet Friday night, ten people – mostly family members of Clinic patients – gathered round the Greenes’ Shabbat table, alongside their five children. For those too weak or too hooked up to beeping machines to leave their beds, Mrs. Greene delivered meals prepared with their diet restrictions in mind. (Her chicken soups are always salt free, because so many patients are on low sodium regimens.)  Preparing hundreds of meals a week from the Chabad House kitchen requires big pots and patience; a commercial kitchen is a long awaited dream.

It’s Rabbi Greene’s willingness to help and Mrs. Greene’s food that comes to mind when Pnina Arbsfeld of New York City recalls the weeks she spent in Rochester at her aunt’s bedside, before and after emergency open heart surgery. “There is no kosher food in Rochester. Anything I needed or anything my aunt needed, the Greenes were running and bringing,” said Arbsfeld. When Arbsfeld’s aunt regained consciousness from the anesthesia, and jello was the only food allowed, it was a cherry flavored crimson bowlful from the Greene’s kitchen that she ate.

Providing what people need most is what has driven the Greene’s work in Rochester. It’s why the community made it a priority to build a mikvah, which allows families to maintain a sense of normalcy. It’s also why Rabbi Greene, son of Professor Velvl Greene of Ben Gurion University, doesn’t deliver lectures. Doctors and hospital employees have had it up to here with lectures. Discussion, the give and take of individual study sessions are what they hunger for. 

Living in a community that embraces so many visitors from the clinic added a dimension long time resident Jill Grunewald did not expect to find in south Minnesota. “We may be a small Jewish community, but it doesn’t appear so because we get people from all over the world here. [The Greenes] are so giving and tirelessly welcoming you get introduced to a visitor and you feel like they’ve been here forever,” said Grunewald.

Community members have caught some of the Greenes’ spirit. Before heading into the Twin Cities for kosher shopping, Rochester residents will ask for patients’ shopping lists and pick up hard to find items. They drive visiting patients to their clinic appointments, and pray for the sick each week.  To Grunewald, the camaraderie brings back memories of get-togethers with her mom’s eight siblings and station wagons full of cousins. “Everyone pitches in, and if something needs to be done, it’s done.”

After two decades of working with patients, the Greenes are working to build even closer ties with Mayo Clinic’s ever-changing community. They want to make life easier for patients with simple things like a kosher vending machine to offer round the clock nourishment for those in need, and big things like apartments where patients and families can stay without sacrificing a Jewish atmosphere.

As they devote the next years to bring those to fruition, they will continue following the Torah’s prescription for a meaningful life: Love your fellow as you love yourself.

To contact Rabbi or Mrs. Greene, call 507-288-7500.


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