When Marina*, a patient in VNSNY’s Hospice program, wanted to talk about her childhood growing up as an observant Jew in Depression-era New York City, she had a ready audience in VNSNY Hospice social worker Joseph Bleiberg. In his visits with Marina at her home, Bleiberg quickly learned that she identified as much with her family’s customs and cultural traditions as she did with the religious aspects of her upbringing.
“For example, Marina would speak about how, though her own family was quite poor, they didn’t hesitate to give food and shelter to their neighbors when their house was dispossessed,” he recalls. “This arose out of the Jewish tradition of charity that her parents brought with them when they emigrated from Russia. As she approached the end of life, these customs held special meaning for her.”
One reason Bleiberg was so prepared to connect with Marina on that level is a cultural sensitivity training program he went through earlier this year. The program, offered by the National Institute for Jewish Hospice (NIJH), emphasizes the many diverse aspects of Judaism that may resonate with hospice patients at the end of life. “Being Jewish can mean different things to different people,” notes Bleiberg. “The NIJH training encourages hospice caregivers to recognize how Judaism serves as a prism through which each patient views his or her life.”
As an NIJH-accredited hospice program, VNSNY Hospice is now developing its own cultural sensitivity training program, designed to help hospice staff understand the needs of its Jewish patients. “In addition to guidance on how to support patients spiritually, the program will also focus on practical issues like the rules of death and mourning in the Jewish community, as well as certain customs that staff need to be sensitive to,” says Donna Nelis, Vice President of Operations at VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care. “The patient’s family may observe certain dress codes, for example, or may keep a kosher home. And there might be certain considerations related to the Sabbath or holidays. These subjects are all potentially relevant to a staff member working with one of our Jewish clients.”
The training starts in November, 2019, and will eventually extend to all VNSNY Hospice care teams, adds Nelis. “Our goal at VNSNY Hospice is to be a center of excellence for culture diversity,” she says. “Our Jewish cultural sensitivity training builds on our similar cultural outreach efforts with the local African-American, Chinese-American, and LGBT communities, and with U.S. military veterans. By helping our caregivers meet our patients on their own cultural terms, we’re ensuring that we provide our patients with the best possible physical and emotional care at the end of life.”
* The patient’s name has been changed for privacy.