Ed. note: Recently, we sent a query to Hospice of the Valley asking if there might be a volunteer in the Shabbat Blessings program interested in writing an article about their experience serving Jewish patients and families at such a difficult time of life. Two of the volunteers responded quickly with individual heartfelt takes on their unique and vital roles, so we decided to publish both.
10 years of volunteering
Why I volunteer with Hospice of the Valley: At the end of a long work week, it is very rewarding to pause and sit with a patient and family to spend these moments helping them. I receive so much more than I give. I take away precious memories and personal growth from each visit. These moments are very special and meaningful to the patients and families; therefore, these moments become very special to me, as well. I can feel their gratitude. I can see how touched they are by the connection to Judaism and the comfort it brings. I feel honored and privileged to share this tradition of our faith.
I decided to get involved with Hospice of the Valley when my grandmother was dying. Every team member who came to us was so caring and comforting and brought so much calm to our situation. I wanted to be that person for others.
The benefits I see: Hospice of the Valley’s Shabbat Blessings program in collaboration with Kivel Campus of Care offers Jewish patients and families a time to connect spiritually, no matter what religious path brought them to this moment. As death nears, I see the families draw comfort from this connection, even at a most difficult time. Often times, the near death experience is foreign to them — they are not sure what to expect or what lies ahead in the next days or weeks, and this can create distress. Having familiar blessings recited and creating the opportunity for spiritual connection in their home setting can help bring some peace and comfort, if only for a moment.
How Hospice of the Valley addresses cultural/religious needs of Jewish patients: Hospice of the Valley and Kivel Campus of Care offer Jewish families and patients something beyond traditional hospice services. The families and patients have an opportunity to experience Shabbat during an extremely stressful and sad time. This spiritual connection is a unique way to service these patients beyond meeting their physical needs.
A few compelling stories: My favorite story to recall was my very first visit, which was actually the program’s first visit. I was told the patient was non-responsive and the family was not in the building, but since I was already there, I decided to continue with the visit anyway. Not sure I was even being heard, I went through the process, recited the blessings, wished the patient a Shabbat Shalom. He immediately said back to me, “Shabbat Shalom.” This was a powerful and emotional moment for me and taught me so much about those so-called non-responsive patients.
Another time, the patient was alive when I called the inpatient care home as I left work, but by the time I arrived 30 minutes later, the patient had died. I still performed the Shabbat rituals with the family with their loved one in the room. Afterwards, the family reminisced and shared some heartfelt memories with me. It was a deeply beautiful moment that I will never forget. Most often, patients are in a deep sleep, but one time a patient enthusiastically and purposefully recited the blessings with me and I could tell this brought him great joy.
I have been asked if I am a rabbi, I have been asked why I would do this, and I have been met with tears of gratitude from the families. Each experience is unique and woven into the fabric of what makes this such a rewarding and meaningful opportunity for me.
Why Shabbat Blessings?
I am not a learned Jew. I was once told that the Torah can be simply summed up in The Golden Rule and that seemed easier to memorize and remember.
Hospice of the Valley’s Shabbat Blessings program combines two focal points of importance to me in a very special manner. It allows me to honor my religion and remember my family by facilitating a simple Sabbath service. I know religion is not for everybody these days. I believe there can be tremendous comfort for those wishing to participate. There is the power of prayer and the power of community.
My background in cancer is colored by the fact I have lost some of the most important people in my life to breast cancer, melanoma and glioblastoma. When you lose more people to cancer than you can remember, you seek comfort and solace where you can find it. Sometimes, for me, that is in prayer.
My background in Judaism is colored by the fact I am from a family of Holocaust survivors, and some that ended up in Auschwitz and Sobibor. My deep appreciation for Judaism came as a result of the work I did for The Shoah Foundation, first as a volunteer and then as an interviewer. It was while studying and collecting survivor testimonies I was constantly amazed at stories of unwavering faith in a seemingly absent God who could still provide comfort and solace for those seeking it as they struggled to survive a special hell surrounded by barbed wire. If someone is actually praying in those circumstances, could it hurt to pray in my life?
Sabbath offers comfort and solace from the crazy and painful events which sometimes seem to overwhelm life. A time out to reflect and be grateful. A time for me to give thanks and more thanks and then more thanks for too many things to list here. It is hoping to help create that feeling of comfort for those in need that I like most about sharing Shabbat Blessings. Ancient prayers and digital music to feed the soul seem to go a long way.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with my own cancer. There were a few times during my nine weeks of radiation when I was asked to visit Eckstein, or Sherman House to share Shabbat Blessings. So I went. Eagerly. I prayed for the hospice patient and then the family. Silently, I prayed for my own health as well.
I believe in God and I believe in prayers. I am always humbled to be in the presence of true and heartfelt prayers and the people who pray them.
I believe the prayers of Shabbat Blessings at Hospice are way past, “Please let so and so get better.” I think they are more like, “Dear God, please be merciful and gentle.” At least they were for me when my own father was in his final days of hospice care 27 years ago.
In closing, I will tell you I am selfish. I do not go to Shabbat Blessings just for the hospice patient and their family. I also go for myself; to find that comfort and solace in urgent and powerful prayer. “Under the shadow of thy wing shall be my refuge.” I read it somewhere and it was easy to memorize and remember. JN