Some words from Shirley Lamm, NIJH President

About the National Institute of Jewish Hospice

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.

Shirley Lamm, President of The National Institute of Jewish Hospice

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.

Hospice means the patient comes first. While a person often wants to die in the comfort of his own home, it’s hard for the patient to see the burden of caregiving put upon their loved ones. Hospice programs have a team visit a home once or twice a week. Their specially trained staff can make sure the patient is comfortable at all times. The hospice staff becomes an extension of the family, easing everyone’s pain and burden.

These days people take longer to die due to medical advances, and the professional support during this time is invaluable. I personally answer calls to the NIJH hotline. One patient said, “Mrs. Lamm, can you please call my mother and let her know I am dying and I need to talk with her about it? She doesn’t want to face it. Can you please talk to her?” I called the mother, who knew her daughter was dying but was advised she wasn’t allowed to discuss it with her. The patient’s desires need to come first. Another patient called and asked me to visit her. After a long session, I asked her what was the one thing she really wanted? With a laugh, she replied that she really just wanted a pastrami sandwich!

I am blessed with 18 grandchildren and 55 great-grandchildren. I am grateful that Hashem put me on this earth to do this work with the most incredible human being, my husband of 61 years. If I will be noted for nothing but that, that will be enough for me.

The National Institute of Jewish Hospice does not hold any large fundraisers or dinners but relies on word of mouth and personal donations to continue our work.

Donations can be made here, or can be mailed to:

National Institute for Jewish Hospice
732 University Street
North Woodmere, New York 11581

“As a Christian working in a Jewish hospice, I was not aware of many customs. It was imperative of me to learn and understand the customs to be able to provide holistic care. Thank you!”