It was at a UJA-Federation meeting twenty-five years ago when someone asked Rabbi Maurice Lamm, the first Orthodox rabbi to ever serve on the Federation’s board, how to care for a terminally ill individual. Rabbi Lamm, then a member of the rabbinate for thirty years and at the time serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, California – one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. – had no answer but vowed to find a way to address what was clearly a delicate and weighty issue.
With seed money from the Federation, Rabbi Lamm created a task force to address the unique needs of the terminally ill Jewish patient – and the Jewish Hospice Commission was born. Comprised of rabbis and community leaders from across the religious spectrum, the commission quickly ascertained that while the Christian community trained their priests and nuns to deal with end-of-life care and did, in fact, operate Christian hospice facilities, the concept of Jewish hospice care had never before been addressed. Vowing to dedicate his life to both dealing with and writing about death and the issues confronting the Jewish terminally ill, Rabbi Lamm began his work in Los Angeles, creating the Jewish Hospice Service. He asked rabbis nationwide for their support. Most of the responses Rabbi Lamm received said practically the same thing: “What took you so long?”
The National Institute for Jewish Hospice (NIJH) in North Woodmere, New York was formally established in 1985. It began with a small board of directors consisting of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, with the goal of creating hospice care specifically for the Jewish terminally ill patient. Sadly there was a great need for hospice care within the Jewish community and in almost no time, the NIJH was running seminars and conferences geared toward offering on-site training at hospices. They began training caregivers and medical staff in the unique needs of the Jewish patient.
The demand for their services was so great that NIJH was forced to shift their training to one central location. Today their accreditation program, geared toward doctors, nurses, volunteers, social workers and others involved in the treatment and care of the Jewish terminally ill, educates caregivers about Jewish laws and customs. Over forty general society hospices are currently accredited by the NIJH, with locations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, Florida, California, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Colorado, Kansas and Wisconsin. Even today there are no Jewish hospices, and the NIJH has found that most terminally ill Jewish patients prefer to die at home, though there are those who choose to live out their final moments in a nursing home, a non-denominational hospice, or a hospital. NIJH trains their caregivers to understand and support their Jewish patients in any setting.
At a gala reception in 1992. NIJH awarded the
actor Alan Alda with the Hope Award.
Pictured (L-R): Arlene Alda (Alan’s wife), Alan Alda,
the playwright Neil simon, and Rabbi Maurice Lamm.
Shirley Lamm, Rabbi Lamm’s wife and executive director of the NIJH, explains that the training that is offered covers numerous nuances and sensitivities, many of which are specific to the Jewish community. Caregivers learn about Jewish medical ethics, and caring for both the patient and his/her family. They are also trained to encourage patients to write an ethical will, thereby creating their own legacy before their demise, and specifying which customs, practices and values they hope will continue to persevere in their family after their departure from this world. Not only does this give the patient an opportunity to be reminded of his/her accomplishments but, according to Mrs. Lamm, it is also very therapeutic for the patient.
“We all forget things,” she said, “but when a patient is lying in bed, waiting for pain medication to work, they spend much of their time thinking, ‘What have I done? What will my family do when I am gone?’ Remembering all that they have accomplished, passing on all that they value can be extremely comforting for the patient.”
According to Mrs. Lamm, calls come in all day, every day on the NIJH’s 24-hour toll-free hotline from patients, family members and caregivers seeking counseling. Mrs. Lamm recalled two phone calls from children, one who wanted to know if there was Chanukah in heaven and another from a boy who was sure that his brother’s illness was a direct result of his skipping school one day without permission.
The NIJH sells numerous books, CDs and articles with the goal of educating the public on Jewish customs of death, dying and mourning. Many of these are from Rabbi Lamm, including his classic work, The Jewish Way In Death and Mourning, a book that was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the ten best religious books of the year” when published in 1969. A living will, a legal document conveying the patient’s wishes that conforms to Jewish tradition and federal and state laws, is available on the NIJH website (www.nijh.org). Additionally, sixteen articles dealing with other related issues are available for download on the website at no cost.
NIJH’s annual Accreditation Conference has become a mandatory event for anyone looking to understand the needs of its Jewish clientele. The conference attracts non-Jewish caregivers and clergy. For many of the attendees, the NIJH conference is their first exposure to Jewish culture.
“We offer the basics,” said Mrs. Lamm. “Most of our caregivers are non-Jewish and they have never seen this stuff. We have sessions entitled Judaism 101 for Beginners, and Judaism 201 Advanced.”
The NIJH will be hosting its 25th Anniversary Accreditation Conference for doctors, nurses, social workers and other caregivers on Thursday, November 11 at the Renaissance Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. Featured sessions will include Jewish Traditions and Practices, Jewish Medical Ethics, Caring For Different Groups Within Judaism, and the Jewish Aspects of Consolation and Bereavement. Special keynote speakers include Rabbi Dr. Earl Grollman, an internationally recognized bereavement counselor and former chairman of the National Center of Death Education; Rabbi Dr. William Cutter, a founding member of the NIJH and founding member and former president of Academic Coalition for Jewish Bioethics; Dr. Barry Kinzbrunner, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Vitas Innovative Hospice Care in Miami; and Rabbi Joseph Lieber, founding executive director of The Yaktzan Center for Drug Rehabilitation in New York. Additionally, this year’s conference will feature an innovative session given by Mrs. Toby Katz, a noted Florida educator, on the subject of tahara, treating the body with dignity and purity. The session will include a video depicting the tahara process.
For more information on the NIJH or their upcoming 25th Anniversary Accreditation Conference, visit their website at www.nijh.org.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various Jewish newspapers, magazines and websites. She has also written song lyrics and scripts for several full-scale productions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.