LA Native brings hope to patients as a pastoral caregiver from North Carolina

Jonah Sanderson, who has served as a chaplain in Gastonia, North Carolina, for the past four months, is not just the only Jewish employee in the small hospital where he works. He is also the only visible Jew in town.

After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Academy for Jewish Religion and five different job offers, the Los Angeles native decided to travel to the deep south to embark on what he called “Jewish renewal in the south”. ”

“I have tried to reach patients at the Neshama level.”
– Jonah Sanderson

“I tried to be patient on one neshama Level, ”said Sanderson, who is training to be a Conservative Rabbi. “Although the prayer in Minyanim and kashrut may not be her thing, I ask her: ‘If you get sick, need psychological help or lose a loved one, where do you turn?’ “

Of the few Jews who live in Gastonia, many are married or have assimilated. Sanderson therefore seeks to create a community that will address the problems facing Jews in the South, including lack of identity and anti-Semitism.

He is no stranger to building a Jewish community as his father Jay Sanderson is CEO and President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (Rabbi Noah Farkas will take on the role on January 1, 2022).

Although Sanderson said 20,000 Jews live near Charlotte, only 10,000 of them are synagogues.

“Where are the other 10,000?” He said. “The answer is that people are no longer necessarily looking for synagogues. We should ask them, ‘What are we not giving you?’ What we need is real, authentic Judaism that speaks to the heart of every individual. “

He is also passionate about bringing greater mental health awareness and resources to the community. After a 31-year-old friend of Sanderson’s tragic suicide, Sanderson saw that Jewish communities did not talk much about mental illness and that they were merely “outsourcing people’s needs to Jewish family services and private therapists,” he said.

While in LA, he founded an organization called Back Engaged Now, which provides psychological training and bodies to rabbis of all denominations and recruits licensed mental health professionals to conduct weekly community visits.

Together with Temple Ner Simcha and Temple Ahavat Shalom, Sanderson created two Shabbat dinners that not only provided 40 Jews with meals, but also provided connections to psychiatric resources and counselors.

After sitting by the beds of 83 patients who have died from COVID in the past four months in Gastonia, Sanderson has learned that it doesn’t matter what faith patients practice. The important thing is that they believe in general.

One patient he fondly remembered was a 29-year-old COVID patient whose chances of survival were not good.

“I’ll never forget to come into the patient room and play Frank Sinatra and Destiny’s Child,” said Sanderson. “We sang ‘Say My Name’ and prayed that this patient would come home. I said a shehecheyanumade one mi sheberach and I wished this patient all the best. Thank goodness the patient is at home now. “

Sometimes Sanderson brings along Jewish texts and ideas to give hope and inspiration to patients, most of whom are non-Jewish.

“This virus is so horrible that any judgment you might have when I walk through the door goes out the window,” he said. “I come in and see patients on ventilators and bypass devices with tubes that keep them alive. You look at me and just start crying. Then I start crying. “

What Sanderson took from his job is that we really are all children of one God.

“Every path is a path to God as long as that path is non-violent and inclusive,” he said. “I often say to my patients: ‘Another commandment, another good deed could make the difference in the world of the good. So what we really want is for you to get better so you can go out there and give the scales to bring salvation. ‘”


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