MITZVAH MAN: In a wide variety of ways, Rabbi Aron Wolf is working to help Chicago Jews who are sick, senior or disconnected

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

There is no doubt that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson would give a nod to Rabbi Aron Wolf’s work. But just a slight one.

“I was a follower of Rabbi Schneerson, an amazing rabbi, who had a tremendous effect on tens of thousands,” Wolf said. “I was extremely influenced by him to go out and help people in need.”

Schneerson, the venerated Lubavitcher Rebbe who died in 1994, was one of America’s most active humanitarians in his time. He would tell an originator of a mitzvah that his good deed was fine, but you can always do more.  

He would not ask anyone to do something he would not do himself – be it rescue Jews from the Iranian Revolution, send emissaries around the world to help Jews, advocate for nuclear disarmament, a U.S. Department of Education, increased government funding for solar energy research and foreign aid to developing countries.

On Sundays outside his Brooklyn office, Schneerson greeted all comers by handing them a dollar bill to encourage donating to the charity of their choice. Amid his “Sunday Dollars” system, he’d quote his father-in-law’s statement that “when two people meet it should bring benefit to a third.”

“Anytime someone came and gave a beautiful report about their work, (Schneerson) said next year double or triple it,” Wolf said. “He trained all followers, don’t rest (on one’s laurels).”

Rabbi Aron Wolf meeting with some Jewish seniors.

Wolf is trying to bring benefit to the proverbial third party by doing that extra effort, the minimum endorsed by Schneerson, through his Chicago Mitzvah Campaign. The 50-year-old Wolf, now aided by son Yisroel Dovid Wolf for the past year, says he works “24-6” with only time off for Shabbat to help sick, senior and disconnected Jews as part of a 10-person staff headquartered on Touhy Avenue in West Rogers Park.

By “24-6,” Wolf said that the hours he does not work on Friday nights and Saturdays are surely made up the remainder of the week by the needy served by his nearly 20-year-old Chicago Mitzvah Campaign, funded largely by a city of Chicago grant.

The Beatles sang “Eight Days a Week,” and Wolf agrees, stating he tries to cram that much work into six.

His work includes operating three hospitality suites, across the street from North Shore Skokie Hospital, Evanston Hospital and Lutheran General Hospital.  Their purpose is to provide a haven of rest for families of hospitalized Jewish patients.

Another service offered is a small fleet of vans that transport patrons to the Mitzvah Campaign’s own senior center at its offices or to doctor’s appointments and other public rounds.

Like Schneerson, Wolf’s commitment to help the less fortunate and advocate for the sick and lonely comes from the heart. A native of Montreal – he provides the French-Canadian pronunciation of “Mon-ree-al” – Wolf had a “strong feeling” to visit hospitalized Jews as a teen-ager.  After moving to Chicago as a young adult, Wolf wanted to fill gaps in health care, advocacy and mobility for those whose physical or mental faculties were in decline.

“I started free transportation services, because for many, it’s hard to get around to see the doctor,” said Wolf of his 1999 organizational founding. “We did more than 10,000 transports in Chicago and the northern suburbs.”

As his services and staff expanded, Wolf’s organization began actively intervening in the affairs of older Jews who could not do for themselves.

One senior was “JL,” a homeowner in Peterson Park. The Mitzvah Campaign’s play-by-play went as follows:

“The appearance of JL’s house reflects considerable dilapidation and neglect. The front and sides of the house show severely peeling paint, starkly overgrown shrubbery and sinking concrete steps. At the back of the house, a fallen awning lies heavily strewn on a rickety deck. The partially-missing side and back fences are leaning heavily and on the brink of collapse. And the back yard itself is overrun with a teeming, forest-like proliferation of unwanted weed trees, stumps, uncontrolled shrubbery and wild growth.

“The owner and sole occupant of the home, JL is a friendly senior who manages to subsist on a very limited income. Years ago, JL retired early from work and wholly devoted herself for many years to care of her sick and elderly parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors with few family or friends. As a child refugee from the Holocaust herself, JL is still sometimes haunted by horrific memories of that period of her life.

“In recent years, JL’s own health challenges resulted in several serious operations, with many months spent in hospitals and rehab facilities. Post-surgery and rehab, JL found much difficulty in re-adjusting to her home routine while still trying to recover her full mobility and strength. Physically unable to leave the house, JL’s ability to obtain food was severely limited, while her home grew dirtier and increasingly beset with piles of garbage bags and other trash. 

“Feeling utterly alone and unable to cope, JL’s motivation to live and recover her health began to wane and seep away. In desperation one day, she decided to reach out and call the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign for help. In JL’s own words, this move ended up saving her life.

“Upon meeting JL in her home, the Mitzvah Campaign immediately made arrangements for deliveries of JL’s grocery list from her preferred vendors. They ensured that the inside of JL’s home was soon cleared of the noxious piled-up masses of garbage bags and waste. And not long after, JL began receiving regular city-sponsored home-cleaning services. These developments revitalized JL, restoring her motivation, joy and will to live.

“Soon afterwards however, another devastating blow struck: The city’s building department sent JL a notice of multiple code violations, threatening her with fines of up to one thousand dollars per violation, per day, unless the necessary permits were obtained and the violations fixed. 

“The notice shook JL to her core, but the Mitzvah Campaign compassion and alacrity saved her from falling into depression. Immediately, the Mitzvah Campaign analyzed the violations and called upon multiple companies to assist with low-cost alternatives to resolve them. Consequently, in just a few short days, JL’s backyard ‘forest’ was cleared, the collapsing fences and fallen awning were removed and the deck was stabilized. For the alleged roofing violations, the Mitzvah Campaign obtained expert testimony disputing the validity of the infringement. And to fix the concrete steps, the Mitzvah Campaign procured a bid for the best low-cost resolution.

Chicago Mitzvah Campaign’s fleet of transportation vehicles enable patients to get to and from needed medical appointments and therapies.

“’The Mitzvah Campaign literally saved my life and gave me new reason to live,’ JL said. ‘The Mitzvah Campaign is a true blessing from G-d for which I will forever be grateful.’”

The back story in JL’s case is the city of Chicago became a temporary adversary, not an advocate, of the beleaguered senior. The social-service safety net is riddled with big holes. Thus the need for a private organization like the Mitzvah Campaign.

“We started because there’s a void in the community of organizations focusing on seniors and sick who are alone,” said Wolf. “When someone is sick in the hospital, family members can be there 24-7. Other times no one’s there, or the family is not there.  Patients are there alone. That void has to be filled. So we started one program after another.”

Advocacy for those who are alone borders on the heartbreaking.  The family support system does not resemble the old West Side or even the South Shore of the early 1960s, with multiple generations looking out after each other.  Recognizing that role, city officials with whom Wolf interacted directed him to a grant program.

“They recognize us as the Jewish organization out there helping at-risk people,” Wolf said. “We’d hear how seniors were roaming the streets in the middle of the night, or getting dressed inappropriately for weather.

“We go to nursing homes and private homes. We become their advocate. We basically are the family, and talk to the doctors and professionals about their care. We’re involved in all their medical needs.”

Rabbi Raphael Jaworowski uplifting a hospital patient’s spirits.

Added Yisroel Wolf:  “It’s life-saving work. If not for my father’s advocacy, some of these people would be gone.”

Sadly, Mitzvah Campaign has had to follow through the very end with some people. The Wolfs estimate they have had to arrange for dozens of funerals for indigent seniors who had no one else.

Another narrative of dealing with a senior who had no one else was authored by the Mitzvah Campaign:

“We received a request for assistance from the owner of a local nursing home. The owner explained that he was in the process of selling the nursing home, and he was very concerned about ‘Harold,’ an extremely ill and isolated Jewish resident. Seeing that Harold had been abandoned by his family and did not have any friends, the owner had always made sure to take a very personal interest in his care. Now however, the nursing home was changing hands. Consequently, the owner asked the Mitzvah Campaign to step in and effectively fill the role of Harold’s family.

“For the last seven years, the Mitzvah Campaign visited Harold on a pro bono basis, making every effort to uplift his spirits and rekindle his interest in life. Throughout scores of hospital admissions and whenever a medical decision needed to be made, the Mitzvah Campaign always acted as Harold’s family, visiting him, advocating for him and taking the responsibility of being his power-of-attorney for health care.

“About a year ago, Harold’s health took an even further significant turn for the worse, to the extent that his doctor almost decided to transfer him to hospice care. Over the last year of Harold’s life, the Mitzvah Campaign intensified their engagement and efforts on his behalf, including dozens of hospital visits and countless meetings and phone calls with doctors and nurses. As Harold’s power-of-attorney, the Mitzvah Campaign left no stone unturned in seeking the best possible outcome for him.

“Sadly, Harold died. Although the legal responsibility as power-of-attorney terminated with his passing, nevertheless, the Mitzvah Campaign continued to care for Harold as family. In view of Harold’s complete lack of financial resources, the Mitzvah Campaign organized and paid for all the necessary arrangements for Harold to receive a dignified traditional Jewish burial. The only attendees at the funeral were the individuals whom the Mitzvah Campaign arranged and transported in order to make a minyan so that kaddish could be recited for Harold at the graveside.”

At a party at Chicago Mitzvah Campaign’s senior center.

Wolf’s organization also serves the families of the afflicted. The trio of hospitality suites across from hospitals is geared toward reducing the stress on families as they stand by their incapacitated loved ones. The three hospitals were chosen on the basis of the number of Jewish patients rotating through.

“Many times patients have family members out of town, or they live in the city or far suburbs,” Wolf said. “They’re not close by. With these suites, they don’t have to drive back and forth. For Orthodox patients, it’s ideal so their families can easily stay close by on Shabbat. The suites are set up to serve all Jews (regardless of religiosity).”

The suite across from Skokie Hospital, opened more than six years ago, is in the basement of a two-story building on Grosse Point Road. The Mitzvah Campaign rents a hospital-owned condo just east of Lutheran General. But the most ambitious project was a former restaurant at the Central Street Purple Line station just south of Evanston Hospital.

“We gutted the old restaurant to the shell and started from scratch,” said Wolf of the $200,000 project.

The suites have a main room with a kitchen, table and refrigerator. Kosher food is always available. Private rooms, which can be locked from the inside, enable families to sleep. The rooms have bathrooms and showers with toiletries provided. Washer and dryers, and a safe for personal belongings are available.

“We want to make sure family members are staying in a nice place,” said Yisroel Wolf.

The suites are only part of the Mitzvah Campaign’s connection with area hospitals. Aron Wolf and Rabbi Raphael Jaworowski visit a circuit of seven hospitals that regularly host Jewish patients – Glenbrook, Swedish Covenant, Weiss, Illinois Masonic, Northwest Community in Arlington Heights and Condell in Libertyville. They do not need to visit their suite-connected hospitals as these institutions have rabbis on staff.

The campaign also delivers care packages to Jewish patients weekly on Thursdays and Fridays at 15 local hospitals. The packages include grape juice and two small challahs.

Wolf and Jaworowski also visit nursing homes. On Jewish holidays, Mitzvah Campaign volunteers visit some 80 nursing homes.

Meanwhile, the campaign helps some 140 seniors with a “lifeline” system, where a senior in distress can push a button and summon emergency responders. In a less-stressful environment, the Mitzvah Campaign’s busy vans bring others to their senior center for a $1 hot lunch and activities. The seniors do not have to climb stairs with the center a walk-in setup on the first floor.

Wolf says he has plans in the works to expand the services and facilities the Mitzvah Campaign offers, just as Rabbi Schneerson would expect. “I can see in a couple of years that our budget will at least double and have a big hike in employees.” And he isn’t worried about how it will be able to financially do even more mitzvahs.

“When you do good things, do things the community recognizes, people will continue to support you.”

The Mitzvah Campaign can be reached at (866) 697-2224.

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