The National Institute for Jewish Hospice (NIJH) began in 1985 by my husband Rabbi Maurice Lamm. He was the first Orthodox rabbi on the board of the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. At the conclusion of a board meeting one day, the president of the federation asked my husband, “Why do the non-Jews know how to take care of their people when they are dying but the Jews don’t?” My husband said he didn’t know why that was the case.
The Federation then gave him $25,000 seed money to do research and a committee to see if there was a need to help terminal Jewish patients. A year later it was determined that hospice is indeed a service needed by the Jewish community. The Federation then gave my husband a one-time grant and NIJH did a mail campaign to see if we would be able to garner enough support to continue the hospice project. The marketing people told us that a 1% reply is considered successful; we had a 10% response, with people asking us, “What took you so long?”
We opened the first NIJH office in Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and we began to teach non-Jewish hospice professionals how to care for dying Jewish people. We put together a great board of individuals: Herman Wouk, Malcolm Hoenlein, Rabbi Dr. William Cutter from HUC, Dr. Samuel Klagsbran from JTS, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm from YU, among others.
We then started to travel to hospices around the country to train them to care for the dying Jewish population in their communities. Eventually we opened an office in New York; now we have offices in Florida and Los Angeles, as well. Hospitals will send one or two staff members to an NIJH conference and then return to their hospices and train the rest of their staff continuously throughout the year. Once that is completed, we send them a certificate of accreditation and they are listed on the NIJH web-site, so that people can easily find a Jewish hospice program for themselves or their loved ones. We give them vidui cards, Jewish living wills, we explain the tahara process, explain our custom to use a plain wooden coffin, and we give them many materials like the book Prayer and Hope written by my husband together with Rabbi Bulka, and much more. NIJH consults with a variety of prominent rabbis if there is ever a halachic issue that requires consultation.
We have been doing these conferences for 33 years. The first one at the Alexander Hotel had two participants, but we just went to work teaching those participants — it was a beginning. Our most recent conference this past November had 105 professionals from 51 hospices in 18 states including Texas, Rhode Island, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, Missouri, and New York. It’s not for rabbis but includes every persuasion of non-Jewish clergy. The hospice professionals can network and find out what other facilities do that works for their patients. We teach caregivers how to make the patient as happy, content, and hopeful as possible. How do you make a dying patient hopeful? Tell them that their family will hold on to the morals and ethics that you, the patient, taught them. That their siblings will stay bonded together. That their spouse will be taken care of.