Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

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By: Ellen Kamaras

Forty-four years ago, in 1973, Dr. Robert Matalon, his wife Barbara, and Fred and Gloria Bijou planted the seeds for the amazing social services organization that isSephardic Bikur Holim.  Since then, it has grown and flourished, and today serves as the foundation of charity and hesed in our community.

It is my honor to share Gloria’s story with you - a story she shared with me on the very same dining room table at which SBH’s first meetings were held.

Gloria Bijou is first and foremost a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  A warm, kind, strong, and modest woman, she speaks lovingly of her childhood. She grew up in both St. Petersburg, Florida and Brooklyn and spent summers in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. A creative person, Gloria loves to use her hands baking, knitting, repairing, and doing art projects.  She also values her quiet time and is a spiritual person, whose faith in Hashem authenticity shines through. 

Gloria refers to each of her six children as a blessing and reminisces about what it was like to raise them: “At times it was pure and simple fun – love and joy, birthday parties and celebrations, Shabbat meals filled with their dad’s animated divrei Torah. And then there were difficult times which appeared to be failures but later turned out to be lessons and even successes…”

Gloria’s passion, positivity, and resilience extend to her profession. A registered nurse, she currently works at Yeshivat Shaare Torah.  Gloria is also the Director of the SBH’s Reach for the Stars, a Sunday Program for high-functioning teens on the spectrum.

Gloria’s Roots

Gloria recalls her father magically dressing the windows of Vicky’s Gift Shop in Webb’s City, Florida. Gloria’s mother, who the store was named after, was herself an eishet chayil who wore multiple hats. As an entrepreneur, she sold linens at her Delancey Street store and at home she baked delicious apple pies. Gloria speaks of her dad fondly as well: “My Dad was a gentle soul who taught us girls to love nature.” These roots laid the groundwork for the profession Gloria would choose, the family she would raise and the hesed organization she would help to build and grow.

Gloria chose nursing as a career. She saw it as a worthwhile and rewarding use of her time and the perfect way to help people. Gloria’s professional life as a nurse was and still is devoted to providing loving-kindness.  Her values are perfectly aligned with the core values of SBH: caring for one another, and giving with compassion, discretion and respect while asking for nothing in return.

Gloria became a nurse in 1962.  At that time, it was unusual for a young Syrian Jewish woman to train as a nurse or pursue a profession.  Most girls her age married older and established men and started a family early. Gloria married someone her own age. “I fell in love with my husband, Fred Bijou, the night I watched him on stage performing in Guys and Dolls as Sky Masterson,” she says. “Four years later we were married.”  Their wedding at Shaare Zion took place a year after she graduated from Brooklyn College Nursing School. They started a family right away. 

Though Gloria took a break from nursing to raise her six children, she returned to it after 17 years away – first as a hospital nurse, then within home care and now as a school nurse for Yeshivat Shaare Torah. In 1973, while her children were still young, she helped found SBH and has been passionately engaged in it ever since.

Sephardic Bikur Holim

SBH began with visits to community members who were in the hospital. Gloria speaks of the way those visits made a difference. She tells of her husband’s friend who was severely depressed; his doctor asked Fred Bijou to try and cheer him up.  After the visit, the doctor came over to Fred and said, "I don't know what you did, but it's like magic!"  Another visit was paid to Gloria’s friend’s father who was so depressed that the surgeon was reluctant to perform surgery on him. It was said that he might need blood transfusions during surgery, so Mr. Bijou put together a registry of donors who agreed to give blood as needed. All of this good will lifted the patient’s spirits dramatically and Be’ezrat Hashem he came through the surgery successfully. The doctor credited his success to the SBH volunteers.

Recruiting people to visit the sick had its challenges, but Fred Bijou was not discouraged.  Fred, who worked in Manhattan, encouraged his friends to take a lunch break and come with him to a nearby hospital. These visits did much to show patients how much the community cared. 

Weekly “motivation meetings were held at the Bijou’s dining room table. There, volunteers shared feedback and lessons learned.  Rabbi Abraham Raful, A”H, attended these gatherings and asked the question of whether funds were needed. “At future meetings, we began hearing about empty refrigerators and peeling paint,” Gloria shares. Money was raised through The Maoz, a hesed organization that is no longer in operation. More volunteers joined and SBH continued providing assistance to patients and their families after their hospital stays.

Formally established in 1974, SBH grew exponentially. SBHPresident Lee Cohen describes it as a non-stop hub of hesed. Currently, there are nine divisions – Volunteers, Career Services, Client Services, Clothing Services, Family Services, Food Services, Medstar (home of The Morris Franco A”’H Cancer Center) Mental Health, and Senior Services.

In addition to visiting the sick, Gloria, together with Linda Benun, led a youth group of volunteers. She proudly states “those youths are now the “CEO’s” of various divisions at SBH.” Later on, Gloria became inspired by the work of volunteer Rachel Shamah, who educated parents of special needs children about governmental “entitlements” available from the Board of Education. When Gloria saw how many parents attended these sessions, she was determined to start an SBH division for the children affected. She and Barbara Matalon started a support group for parents of children with autism. Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by impairments in socialization, communication and cognitive flexibility.

Back them, children with autism were not accepted in any of the typical “clubs” in the community. Parents felt extremely pained when they took their children to playgrounds and found others unaccepting. All of that changed when Barbara and Gloria decided to start an SBH Sunday Program for these children, ages four to sixteen. “We called it “Reach for the Stars,” Gloria says. “We hired a child behavioral psychiatrist, set up classrooms with teachers experienced in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis therapy) and later added a teen division called “The Traveling Teens.” Volunteers from the communityyeshivot were recruited to work with the children. Until today, they proudly, happily and enthusiastically contribute their Sundays to partner with our teens.”

Later, two private community schools for children with autism were developed, one of which Barbara went on to establish. Since then, Gloria has carried the torch as Director of the SBH Reach for the Stars Program and continues to shape and grow it. Her joy and enthusiasm for the programand its clients has not diminished, even after 14 years of running it. Gloria passionately summarizes the program’s mission and goals:“Today’s SBH Reach for the Stars Sunday Teens is a program where “special needs” teens and young adults can gather together on a Sunday and feel at home, while receiving quality attention, socialization, love and learning all at the same time.” All of this occurs alongside typical community teens.

The program’s immediate goals are:

1.      To find dynamic and flexible professionals to work with these young adults, with the end goal of facilitating their independent integration into a working environment.

2.      To provide job training. This will empower them to live life to the fullest, make good choices, live independently and proudly participate in the community.

Gloria’s Vision

Gloria hopes to establish an employment agency for individuals with disabilities. She aims to encourage small and large businesses in our community to employ these young adults once they become “job ready.” For these individuals, fields of competence might be goods and services, customer service, retail, warehouse work, data entry, food preparation, art, jewelry design, and more.

There are currently several openings in the program for teens and young adults on the spectrum this coming season. Children accepted range from 14 to 26 years of age.

 “Life is packed with challenges, so decide in advance that you will face and conquer them head on,” Gloria urges. To the young people who want to work in her field, she advises: “Love it, want it, work very hard, be cautious and focus on abilities not disabilities.”