In one of the first events of its kind in the region, a workshop in Scotch Plains on March 22 will give Jewish community professionals an opportunity to explore ways to support patients — and their families — through the last chapter of life.
“Hospice through Jewish Eyes” will examine end-of-life care in general, and Jewish care in particular.
Participating experts will include chaplains, community rabbis, social workers, and others from the tristate area and beyond.
“We’re in the business of creating a caring community,” said Cecille Asekoff, a workshop organizer and executive director of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains. “The important message we want to convey is that the Jewish community walks with you here as well, through this stage of life.”
The event, at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus, is being cosponsored by NAJC, the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and the Martin and Edith Stein Hospice on the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset. It will run from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“The hospice issues are explored at professional conferences for chaplains, but as far as I know, there hasn’t been an event like this for professionals from all these different disciplines,” Asekoff said.
When serious illness strikes, she said, people tend to turn to their rabbis for support, and then, as matters progress, to social workers and other professionals.
Hospice care becomes an option, generally, when a patient is expected to have six months or fewer to live. Given the delicacy of the subject, many professionals hesitate to bring it up with their clientele.
“People tend to associate the idea of hospice with something bleak, but in reality — especially at such an emotional time — it can be tremendously comforting, not just for the patient, but for the family as well,” said Debbie Rosenwein, director of planning and allocations for the Central federation. “You have a team of people to help you — doctors, social workers, nurses — so you can deal more thoughtfully and calmly with all the issues that arise.”
Susan Harris, CEO of the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus, pointed out that hospice care is the most underused Medicare and insurance benefit there is. The rate is increasing, but figures for 2011 show only about 42 percent of those eligible made use of the service. “The sad part,” she said, is that “most people don’t think to involve hospice until the last few days. If it starts earlier, it can be of so much help — to support the family, in managing pain, and helping the patient and the family work through the process.”
Harris stressed that there is no “cookie-cutter” approach to dealing with end-of-life care, and that, she said, is something that Jewish families need to be reassured about. They also need to get past the “urban legend” that entering hospice care means the end of proper nutrition. The team of caregivers works with patients and their families to come up with an approach that meets the decisions they have made about their specific medical and emotional needs.
The goal of the March 22 event, she said, is to ensure that Jewish lay and professional leaders are in a position to guide and inform those in need, and know when to introduce the subject.
The keynote speaker will be Dr. Beth Popp, associate director of the Division of Hematology/Medical Oncology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.
A panel discussion will look into “Hospice: a Jewish Case Study”; panelists will include Rochelle Brodsky of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ and other professionals in the field. Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, director of the Shira-Ruskay Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City and Westchester, will discuss “traditional sources of text as related to end-of-life,” and Sharon Criscione, clinical director of the Stein Hospice, will tackle the benefits of using a hospice program.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner, chaplain at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus, will offer the concluding comments. Before joining the staff in 2010, he worked as a hospice chaplain and bereavement services manager with VITAS Hospice. He has also lectured throughout the state on Jewish end-of-life care issues.
Speaking at a community event on the topic at the Wilf campus in 2010, he said clergy members provide solace and comfort not only through religious counseling but by appealing to cultural ideas as well.
“I made a home visit to a Jewish man who described himself as an atheist,” he told the audience. “We were joined by a Chabad rabbi who asked the man if he wanted to get some exercise by dancing. The man agreed and we all started to dance. The patient, who was initially pretty grumpy, broke out into a huge grin and couldn’t stop laughing.”