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VITAS Serves the Jewish Community

VITAS understands traditions | VITAS Hospice serves the Jewish community

As the hospice movement flourishes, many in the Jewish community have hesitated to take advantage of its benefits, asking: Can hospice be compatible with Judaism?

The answer, says Barry M. Kinzbrunner, M.D., is yes. This is not just his opinion as an oncologist and chief medical officer for VITAS; Dr. Kinzbrunner also is an ordained Orthodox rabbi. He has written extensively on end-of-life care and Jewish medical ethics, including co-authoring The Jewish Hospice Manual with Rabbi Maurice Lamm, D.D., president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice (NIJH).

“From care of the sick to the mourning practices of those who are left behind, Judaism provides a profound way for its followers to mark the passing of a loved one, while still honoring life itself,” says Dr. Kinzbrunner. And trained hospice workers can aid Jewish patients and their families as they follow this ancient way, he says.

A large number of VITAS programs are accredited as Jewish Hospices by the NIJH. This means all program staff and volunteers have completed in-depth training covering the beliefs, customs, philosophies and ethics of both practicing and non-practicing Jews. Dr. Kinzbrunner and Joel S. Policzer, M.D., VITAS Vice President and National Medical Director, also have spoken extensively to Jewish clergy and lay groups to further their understanding of the value of hospice care.

While a significant percentage of the American Jewish population is non-secular or non-practicing, says Dr. Kinzbrunner, “when people are dying, they tend to go back to their culture and roots. It involves a re-awakening of traditions.”

Reform, Conservative and Orthodox traditions differ in observances and laws as they relate to end-of-life care, burial preparations and support for the bereaved. It is essential, therefore, for hospice programs and caregivers to be adequately prepared.

Jewish practice, for example, requires someone to remain with the deceased from the time immediately following death until burial to ensure that no desecration occurs, because the body is considered sacred. For the same reason, families usually want a Jewish funeral home to clean and prepare their loved one’s body for burial.

VITAS’ certified Jewish Hospice programs train staff and volunteers in these beliefs and customs, along with Jewish ethics related to medical futility and the care of the terminally ill. With the the support of staff specially trained in Jewish culture and traditions, patients and families representing all faith traditions within the Jewish community can face death or the loss of a loved one with the comfort of their faith, traditions and values. 

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