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Temple Beth-El carolers bring Christmas cheer to North Shore patients

With a guitar, tambourines and a repertoire of dozens of songs, the Temple Beth-El carolers sang their way through North Shore University Hospital this Christmas, as they do every Dec. 25. Credit: Danielle Silverman

With a guitar, tambourines and a repertoire of dozens of songs, the Temple Beth-El carolers sang their way through North Shore University Hospital this Christmas, as they do every Dec. 25.

They piled into 78-year-old Mary Anne Cremin’s room and sang "O Holy Night." In the hallway they were singing "Feliz Navidad" when they ran into Father Evans on his way to lead noon Mass, and then it was on to 84-year-old patient Hazel Jerome Bishop’s room for another request.

The tradition started 47 years ago, born out of goodwill, luck and necessity. In those days, “this was just a country hospital, 200 beds” and staffing was short on the holidays, said Lisa Breiman, the Manhasset hospital’s director of volunteer services.

The wife of one of the hospital’s founding surgeons happened to be a member of the Great Neck temple. She and other members performed essential nonmedical duties like answering the phones and distributing blankets and pillows.

Professionals now handle that work at the hospital, 800 beds large and a jewel of the Northwell Health system, but the Temple Beth-El carolers have never stopped.  

“There are patients without visitors. There are patients whose families live further away or can’t get here,” said Jon Yedvab, a nurse practitioner at the hospital and member of the congregation who has been singing for 10 years.

The hospital — brightly lit, populated Wednesday by more than a few nurses wearing antlers — is nevertheless “not a place where anybody wants to be,” he said. “This is a joy we bring to people.”

Though the carolers include a music teacher, Yedvab himself is “not anywhere close” to being a trained singer. He starts enlisting volunteers each October, telling them they don’t need experience either, “just enthusiasm.”

In a decade’s worth of visits, he said, a handful of moments stand out. One patient asked not for a carol but for a mi sheberach, a prayer for blessing and healing. Yedvab recognized another patient, nearing the end of his life, as the father of a former colleague.

In Bishop’s room, his daughter, Johnnah Jarrell, said that Wednesday was the first Christmas in many years that her father had missed a big family breakfast at their Springfield Gardens home.

“It’s kind of weird that we’re not all together,” she said. The music made him happy and “seeing him uplifted just uplifts me,” she said.

For Cremin, of Westbury: “It’s been a rough year.” She was hospitalized earlier this month and missed family traditions like midnight Mass and Christmas dinner this year.

Being in the hospital can be “lonesome,” she said.

Cremin was surprised when the carolers visited, but sang with them. Afterward, she said: “That felt so good. I love to sing. That just brought joy to me … They’ve got good loud voices.”

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