For seven years Bertha Laufer, an intelligent, articulate, retired New York City English teacher, lived in a non-Jewish nursing home in the Bronx and would help some of her nurses with their high school equivalency courses. But none of her relatives lived in New York and as the years went by, she became lonelier and lonelier.
"She wanted someone to talk to her about books and ideas," recalled Laufer’s niece, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of Philadelphia. "She could quote Milton and Shakespeare by heart and there was no one for her to talk to."
There was no rabbi at the institution, and the nurses appeared unable to care for someone with her needs and her age; she was 88 when she died in October, Rabbi Kreimer said. The rabbi said she called all over the city to try to find someone from a local synagogue who could regularly visit her great aunt, "but there didn’t seem to be any system that could make that happen."
So six months before her death, Laufer’s family moved her to a Jewish nursing home, where she lived out her days with better care and a staff "who could speak with her and were responsive to her needs," said Rabbi Kreimer.
Rabbi Marion Shulevitz hopes that Laufer’s loneliness is never duplicated by terminally ill Jewish patients or their families. Her job is to see it doesn’t.
The same month that Laufer died, Rabbi Shulevitz assumed the newly created post of hospice chaplain of the New York Board of Rabbis.
"We’re basically an outreach program to people who are not connected," she explained. "New York is a very big city, one where you can find Jewish expression without the necessity of being part of an organized Jewish community.
"If you are in the Midwest and want to be part of the Jewish community, you have to join a shul. But here, some people don’t make a connection and when they need it, they don’t have it. We are reaching out to them; we’re not writing anyone off."
Rabbi Shulevitz, 65, pointed out that while some unaffiliated patients will be visited by a rabbi when they are hospitalized with an acute illness, after they are sent home "they have no community or rabbinic support, and they feel all alone and alienated.
"There are many people who find themselves disconnected from family, friends and the community at large. We are here to serve them with free rabbinical counseling and care," the rabbi said.
To reach these Jews, Rabbi Shulevitz said she has written to every non-Jewish hospice and hospital in the city, every agency of the UJA-Federation network and every chaplain in the HealthCare Chaplaincy, an interfaith organization that trains and places chaplains in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. The Board of Rabbis affiliated with the chaplaincy about a year ago to provide training to its members who serve in hospitals, nursing homes and penal institutions throughout the state.
Rabbi Shulevitz said she has met with nine terminally ill patients and/or their families; hospice deals with bereavement for the entire family. The visits to one of the patients (an elderly, frail man) have been short because, she said, he tends to "fall asleep within 20 minutes."
She spends about an hour each week with a terminally ill woman, though the woman "would like me to stay the whole day." And in response to a call from a rabbi in California, Rabbi Shulevitz has spent time with the terminally ill mother of one of his congregants.The rabbi said she has also referred some family members to a bereavement group. And in another case, the rabbi said she hooked up a family with a "local rabbi and a place to say Kaddish. It took death for them to feel they need a connection again."
A one-year grant from the state Department of Health made the program possible. The grant was presented to the Board of Rabbis and the HealthCare Chaplaincy. Rabbi Shulevitz said it pays for her services for just one day a week and that she must confine her visits to the cityís five boroughs.
"If this is successful, we’ll try to get Jewish foundations to support us," she said. "I’d love to do this on a wider basis. I don’t want to cover all of Long Island and Westchester, too, but that does not mean we can’t get someone else to cover there."
In addition to meeting with patients and their families, Rabbi Shulevitz said she plans to meet shortly with families of Alzheimer’s patients at the Kings Bay Y in Brooklyn "to try to help them discover spiritual resources because a real victim in these cases is the family members who watch a person they love deteriorate from a vibrant spouse or parent to one is who totally out of it and who most of the time does not know them. That’s very painful."
The rabbi said she also works with terminal Alzheimer’s patients because "even though they are not alert, they do respond to emotional awakening experiences like prayer or music."
Harriet Feiner, director of UJA-Federation’s Shira Ruskay Jewish Hospice Information Service, welcomes Rabbi Shulevitz’s efforts, saying she believed it would "fill a gap in the need for community chaplaincy."
"Now that hospitals are discharging patients much earlier than they used to, hospital chaplains have less of an opportunity to make contact with the family. Before you turn around, the patient is discharged."
"She will be referring people to us and we will refer people to her," Feiner added. "There may be some people she visits who could use hospice care and we could help them get it."
Rabbi Shulevitz, 65, a Detroit native, is the mother of three and a grandmother who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary 10 years ago. Since her ordination, she served as a chaplain at the former Brooklyn Hospice and then worked for the HealthCare Chaplaincy. She was also interim director of the Board of Rabbis’ chaplaincy program, and for the past two years has served as chaplain at the Amsterdam Nursing Home in Manhattan. Before the rabbinate, she taught in public and Hebrew schools.Rabbi Kreimer said that based on her own experience, Rabbi Shulevitz’s position is one that will be welcomed in the city.
"It came too late for my aunt, but I am happy to know of its existence because there are others like my aunt," she said.