Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bikur Cholim in America - pre & post WWII: Who Were The Pioneers? Setting The Record Straight

Bikur Cholim is a great mitzvah, which many Jews have excelled in for a very long time. But sometimes people forget our long background in it and get confused.

The Claim - Founded By Survivors

One occasionally hears or reads claims in frum circles like 'The (Holocaust) survivors started bikur cholim in America'. The explanation of the claim is based on their founding of a number of well known Bikur Cholim organizations, such as Bikur Cholim of Boro Park, Satmar Bikur Cholim in New York, and others.

But is this so? Was there no bikur cholim before the end of WWII in the USA? Is bikur cholim a mitzvah performed only by ultra Orthodox or Hassidic holocaust survivors?

What Does Bikur Cholim Really Mean?

To answer the above, we must first examine the meaning of the term ביקור חולים. Many people today think it translates simply into 'visiting the sick'. However, in reality, it means much more than that. It means to see that a sick person's needs have been taken care of, as seen in an article by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff here. That encompasses a range of activities, from creating hospitals and clinics and treating sick individuals (which seems to be a major and greater fulfillment of the mitzvah), to providing them with support, such as by visiting, and providing food, encouragement and davening for them.

Pre WWII Bikur Cholim

In the pre WWII period, many Jews were active in working to erect Jewish hospitals, in various parts of America. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, sixty Jewish hospitals were established in twenty four US cities between 1850 and 1955. Such institutions enabled Jews (as well as others) to receive vital competent medical assistance, while at the same time getting kosher food and not being subject to Christian symbols and proselytization, which was a great threat in those early days in other hospitals (yes, America was different then than it is today). Great, sustained, and mighty effort, together with much Jewish funds, brought about the creation of great institutions to help the sick. Keep in mind that at that time the great level of government support for healthcare that we have today did not exist, making the feat all the more impressive. It wasn't like getting a government funded clinic for needy people set up nowadays. It was much more difficult. What a great fulfillment of ביקור חולים!

There are also old Shuls in various places with ביקור חולים in their names and constitutions, obviously something they were very concerned and involved with.

This is in addition to other types of bikur cholim, as discussed below, of course.

Post WWII developments

After WWII, various refugees migrated to the United States. They perhaps had not seen and were not aware of the herculean efforts made by earlier arrived Jews to set up the great Jewish hospitals in previous years. Where and how they thought the hospitals had come about, whether they thought they just appeared miraculously, just fell down like manna from heaven, or otherwise, I don't know. Nevertheless, they came and sought to perform bikur cholim in other ways, such as by visiting patients, bringing them hot food, such as chicken soup (I suspect it started out as a service for Hassidic patients who didn't trust the kashrus of the hospital food, and then branched out to others as well), among other things, in already existing institutions. Some Hassidic Rebbes, such as the Skvira of Brooklyn and Bostoner of Boston, famously got involved in referring patients to specific hospitals and doctors, who they believed were better than others. Nice and important things to do. But mostly in the category of supporting the ill, rather than directly being involved in treating their illnesses, which was taken care of by the hospitals brought about by earlier immigrants.


Different Jews made different contributions in the area of bikur cholim. Some were more active in building hospitals, while others were more active in support services after the hospitals already existed. Can the latter group then seriously claim that they were the pioneers in the area of bikur cholim in general, as if they invented it? Of course not. The lion's share of credit belongs to those who toiled mightily to create the great institutions.

To this day we see Jews, of various backgrounds and levels of religiosity, being leaders in the area of helping the ill (another way of saying bikur cholim), as donors of large sums of money, medical personnel such as doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, as well as by providing support for the sick and their families with meals, apartments near hospitals, and otherwise. We are a merciful people. רחמנים בני רחמנים. This great mitzvoh is done by many types of Jews, not just one type.

So the answers to the questions we started out with are all definitively no. Bikur cholim is a mitzvah engaged in and shared by many types of Jews and is not owned by one group or another.

Just to set the record straight and put things into perspective. למען האמת.