“Ilya Y” was a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the United States in his seventies who lived in a heavily rent-subsidized apartment building in the city of Chicago. The manager of Ilya’s building brought his name to the attention of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (CDFSS) after it had become obvious that Ilya was floundering due to his many serious health issues, and badly needed help. The CDFSS, as they often do with their Jewish clients, turned to the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign to handle Ilya’s case.
Ilya lived an isolated and lonely existence. His only family was a daughter living in Israel, but she and Ilya had long been out of regular contact with each other. Left to manage on his own, Ilya’s physical health was now being ravaged by an array of illnesses. The worst of his bodily ailments was the condition of his legs, which were afflicted by painful and debilitating wounds. These leg wounds were so badly infected that Ilya’s doctors were focused on doing everything in their power to try to avoid the prospect of amputation.
Ilya ’s pain and discomfort were such that just shuffling around his apartment to carry out basic living tasks posed a monumental daily challenge for him. He frequently lacked proper food and other household essentials. And although caring for his leg wounds required him to attend regular medical appointments, he consistently missed many of these much-needed doctor visits
Even when Ilya did manage to receive medical treatment, his problems were further compounded and complicated by his tendency to resist the professional medical advice he was given, insisting instead on doing everything his own way. For example, his leg wounds required his bandages to be changed daily. But Ilya rejected out of hand the strong medical advice he was given to be admitted into an appropriate facility to care for his wounds, and remained stubbornly adamant that he would stay at home and care for them himself. And instead of following instructions and using the fresh gauze that he was provided for his new bandage every day, Ilya constantly and inexplicably persisted in re-using the old, soiled gauze from the previous day.
In view of his overwhelming troubles and difficulties, Ilya was in desperate need of help from an outside agency that would inspire his trust, and the rabbis of the CMC responded to the call. They put up a mezuzah on Ilya’s apartment door and helped him put on tefillin and pray. They arranged for him to receive deliveries of kosher frozen meals, and bought him a microwave oven and a window fan to ensure that he would always have a hot, nutritious meal to eat, and that his apartment would be cool enough during the summer months.
Over many months, the CMC provided free transportation and encouragement for Ilya to attend his frequent medical appointments and trips to the hospital. And although his moods and difficult circumstances sometimes prevented Ilya from going to these appointments, the CMC’s involvement resulted in remarkable improvements in his healthcare situation and overall well-being. As time progressed, the CMC rabbis continued to visit with Ilya, offering counsel, friendship and support. Ilya came to rely on his relationship with the CMC and it meant so very much to him to have the benefit of this heimishe support structure.
Still, Ilya’s health condition continued to worsen, as he resolutely refused to be admitted into a care facility. The situation came to a head when a worker at his apartment building entered Ilya’s apartment while he was occupied with changing his bandages, and observed the blood gushing from his wounds. Fearing the worst, the worker called an ambulance; however, upon the ambulance’s arrival, Ilya simply refused to go to the hospital. In desperation, the police were called in. When the officers beheld the blood spattered all over the apartment, and heard Ilya’s calm refusal to seek medical attention at the hospital, they thought that they had a suicide case on their hands. Rabbi Wolf of the CMC also stepped in and begged Ilya to go with him to the hospital. But still, Ilya refused to budge.
The following day, Ilya had a change of heart and took a taxi to the hospital by himself. The doctors were horrified at the state of Ilya’s infected leg wounds, and told him that if he wished to continue living, he would need to be on an intravenous antibiotics drip in a nursing home for several months. It took a lot of convincing on the part of the hospital staff and the CMC, but Ilya finally relented and agreed to be admitted into a nursing home.
Several months later, the course of intravenous antibiotics at the nursing home was over. Ilya promptly discharged himself and returned to his apartment, ignoring the doctor’s firm advice and the CMC’s pleas that he remain under full medical care in the nursing home. Not long thereafter, the police received a phone call from the building management at Ilya’s residence, who had not seen him coming or going for days. The police entered Ilya’s apartment and found him dead.
Notwithstanding Ilya’s open wounds and the unsanitary conditions of his apartment, the responding police officers felt that the cause of death was uncertain enough to warrant sending the deceased body to the coroner’s court. From the Jewish perspective, this could have easily resulted in disastrous consequences for Ilya. The coroner may have ordered an autopsy to be performed, which is contrary to halacha, Jewish law. And once the body would have entered the labyrinth system of bureaucratic red tape, it would likely have been a difficult and protracted nightmare to successfully have it returned for Jewish burial, if indeed this could be accomplished at all.
Fortunately however, the building management contacted Rabbi Wolf at the CMC, and he was able to intervene. He spoke with the police officers assigned to the case, reassuring them that the CMC was intimately familiar with Ilya’s situation. He then connected them with Ilya’s doctors, who explained and verified Ilya’s medical condition. Thus disabused of the need to rule out any suspicious factors in Ilya’s death, the gendarmes released the body into the care of the CMC. The Chevra Kadisha was called in and Ilya merited a proper Jewish burial, with a minyan in attendance and Rabbi Wolf officiating.
Although the CMC’s help was not enough to ensure the most optimistic outcome for Ilya, nevertheless, its unstinting efforts certainly bore fruit. Thanks to the CMC’s involvement, Ilya’s life was extended by months or even years, and his quality of life during that time was greatly enhanced, materially, spiritually, and emotionally.
But the story of “Ilya Y” and the CMC does not end here. The chesed mitzvos with which we are involved benefit the dead as well as the living. Thanks to tireless efforts, Ilya’s daughter was located in Israel. She was informed of her father’s passing, and was thus able to pay her final respects by undergoing the appropriate mourning phases. Moreover, after Ilya’s death the public administrator’s office found that he had squirreled away a significant amount of money over the years. As of this writing, the CMC is assisting Ilya’s Israeli daughter as she navigates the legal process of verifying her identity with the US authorities. As a struggling single mother, receiving this inheritance will make a big difference to her financial circumstances.