Most hospitals, religiously affiliated or not, have some kind of designated interfaith prayer center for staff and patients. But MedStar Good Samaritan Hosptial in Northeast Baltimore has something different — the Etta Barrash Jewish Prayer and Meditation Room. It’s the only Jewish prayer room in a Catholic hospital in Baltimore.
In November 1968, Good Samaritan welcomed its first patients and quickly became an area leader in rehabilitation services for those who suffer from chronic health problems and ailments such as kidney disease, arthritis, stroke and lung disorders. The hospital, which added more general hospital and emergency services in the mid-1970s, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
“At Good Samaritan Hospital, Catholic identity is a cornerstone of our culture of care. We very much believe in it,” said John C. Smyth, the hospital’s chair of the board of directors, in a video commemorating the half-century milestone. He went on to say that “catholic,” in this sense, “encompasses all faiths, all creeds, all races. We care for everyone.”
And for almost as long as the hospital has been in business, that “everyone” has included visitors to the quiet and welcoming Jewish prayer room, adjacent to the cathedral where Catholic mass is held. The room — with its ability to facilitate prayer, reflection and comfort — has become an indispensable part of the hospital’s faith-based fabric.
A renowned name in Jewish Baltimore
Frank and Etta Barrash were married in 1923 and soon after started a business called Etta Gowns, which remained open on Eastern Avenue until Frank died in 1987. The boutique was well-known in Baltimore for sponsoring WJZ’s dance party program “The Buddy Deane Show” in the ’50s and ’60s, and was even mentioned in the John Waters film “Pink Flamingos.”
Etta Gowns never ceased to be a family-operated business. At one point, Frank and Etta, their son Lawrence and his wife Evelyn, who also worked at the shop, and their three children, Gloria, Michael and Barbara, all lived in close quarters above the store. In 1957, the family moved to Bancroft Park in Northwest Baltimore.
After suffering a heart attack and stroke in November 1969, Etta was admitted to Good Samaritan and received rehabilitation services there until she died in April 1970. Frank and grandson Michael visited her daily, and Frank frequently prayed in her hospital room. He also became close with the hospital’s then-chaplain, Father John Brunett, and after Etta died, he offered to fund the creation of a Jewish prayer room in his wife’s name. The room, which Frank hoped would be used by people of all faiths, was completed in March 1971.
“This was a Catholic hospital. No one had ever heard of a Jewish prayer room in a Catholic hospital,” said Michael Barrash. “Since its inception, probably as many non-Jews as Jews use the room. It’s such a cozy, warm little jewel in a sterile hospital.”
But as the name suggests, the room is unmistakably Jewish, featuring a mezuzah on the doorframe, a stained-glass Star of David and a small library of Jewish texts. Still, Good Samaritan staff members say that over the years the room has become a go-to spot for prayer and meditation for staff and patients of all faiths.
Now, the prayer room is referred to as the Barrash Jewish Prayer and Meditation Room and also memorializes Frank, who died in 1987. Later this year, Michael hopes to hold a rededication ceremony and add plaques for his sister Gloria Grace Salkin, who died in 2012, and his father, Lawrence Barrash, who died last October.
A comforted staff
Allison Bowers is a physical therapist and quality and accreditation specialist at Good Samaritan. She transferred to Good Samaritan two years ago from MedStar Union Memorial Hospital, a non-denominational institution. Initially, Bowers, who is Jewish, wondered if a Catholic hospital would be the right fit for her. But after she started, the prayer room’s presence and the twice daily reciting of Jewish prayers over the hospital intercom made her feel welcome.
“When I get really stressed, I can come here and relax,” Bowers said. “It’s just nice to know it’s there.”
George Farley, the assistant vice president of mission integration at Good Samaritan, said the hospital makes concerted efforts to meet the spiritual needs of the patients. When asked why he thought the prayer room appeals to so many faiths, Farley, a devout Catholic, said, “The thing I hear so much is that there is a serenity or a peace. It’s that the presence of the Lord is there.”
Like Bowers, other Jewish staff members at Good Samaritan have found comfort in the room over the years, making use of it during trying times in their lives.
“I was walking into this Catholic hospital and wondering whether or not I was going to be comfortable there,” said Dr. Moira Larsen, a pathologist who worked at Good Samaritan for 27 years. “Lo and behold, I discovered they had a Jewish prayer room.”
Larsen, who now splits her time between MedStar’s Franklin Square Medical Center and Union Memorial Hospital, gained a significant appreciation for the room in 2010, when her father died. In the months leading up to and following her father’s death, Larsen prayed in the room frequently, and even said Kaddish there.
“I went there during the process when he was dying, and I sort of went there whenever I was having personal problems, crises in my life, or stresses became so much that I needed that spiritual connection to who I am to calm down and go out and face the day,” she said. “It was a very regenerating process. It’s a very quiet, peaceful room.”
Dr. Bernard Ravitz, another Jewish staff member, also found comfort in the prayer room. His son, Sean, was born prematurely and weighed only 1 pound.
“I spent a lot of time in this room just having a place to reflect and try to understand how Sean was going to make it,” said Ravitz. “I prayed a lot in here and I was very hopeful.”
Only four years after Sean’s birth, Ravitz was hit by another blow, when his wife Stacey became ill. Again, Ravitz said he came to the room, “just trying to figure out life.”
Ravitz said the prayer room influenced his decision to take the job at the hospital, and it came to represent, to him, the way staff and patients at Good Samaritan could bond, despite differences of faith.
“Even though we have the skills in medicine, I think there is always a higher force that helps us and guides us to make the right decisions,” Ravitz said.
All in the family
Good Samaritan Hospital employs one person from the Barrash family, Elyse Carignano, who has worked there as a social worker since 2001. Carignano says she doesn’t often visit the room, but is honored to work at a hospital that memorializes her great-grandmother. And while Michael Barrash, 65, is not an employee of Good Samaritan, he’s been very involved in maintaining and improving the prayer room over the years, including having a rededication of the room, adding a plaque to commemorate his grandfather and spearheading an effort to redesign the room in 2002.
“To this day, I visit it a couple of times a year at least,” Michael said.
One time, the room actually played an important healing role in his own life.
After a weekend of dealing with pain in his right side, Michael’s husband, Jerry Newton, called out of work on Monday. That same day, Michael was headed to Good Samaritan to move new furniture into the prayer room as part of the redesign. He urged Jerry to come along, just to get out of the house.
“I felt so sick that weekend, I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Jerry recalled. At the prayer room with Michael, Jerry described his symptoms to a hospital staffer, who suspected he might have a kidney problem, and got him an appointment with a urologist that afternoon. X-rays revealed atrophy in Jerry’s kidney as well as kidney stones; he had to have the kidney removed. Now, 17 years later, Jerry remains grateful and mystified.
“That would have never happened if we hadn’t come here that day,” he said.
For Michael, it was as if his grandparents were there, looking out for his husband.
“During that difficult time, I felt like there was an angel watching over the whole situation,” he said.
Michael’s grandparents would surely be gratified by what the prayer room has come to mean. Frank’s tribute to his wife has now served generations of people searching for comfort and hope. It’s a tremendous — and singular — Jewish legacy.