Israelis have a reputation for being frank and direct — dugri, in local parlance. But when it comes to death and dying or dealing with chronic illness, many Israelis have as much trouble dealing with it as people in any other part of the world.
For the past decade Life’s Door -Tishkofet, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Ben and Dvora Corn, American immigrants to Israel, has been helping Israelis understand that illness and loss are part of the continuum of life, and teaching professionals as well as patients how to transform anguish, confusion and denial into hope and personal growth.
The Corns made aliyah in 1997 with their four daughters and realized that they could make a meaningful contribution by bringing the concept of spiritual care to Israeli society. Tishkofet’s activities today encompass a broad array of programs in seven communities throughout Israel. The programs include training workshops for hundreds of medical professionals and volunteers in the art of emotional and spiritual support for people with chronic or terminal illness, as well as individual therapy for thousands of patients and their loved ones.
Support groups and retreats with an emphasis on taking control and finding the spiritual strength to confront illness are all part of how Tishkofet leaders hope to change society’s view of illness.
“The natural inclination of most people faced with serious illness is denial,” says Tishkofet’s co-founder and executive director, Dvora Corn, a U.S.-trained occupational and family therapist. “Israelis love to say: ‘Yehiye B’seder’ (It’ll be OK). We’ve built barriers to what’s a natural part of human existence,” she asserts.
Corn believes that once people confronted with illness are provided a structure to explore how to make choices of where to spend time and how to invest in their life, they can grow and cope.
“Illness is another life challenge,” she says, emphasizing that Life’s Door-Tishkofet is committed to helping people utilize their existing strengths, relationships and community to deal with the challenge.
Corn explains that for patients and their loved ones, Tishkofet develops individual treatment plans with a strong emphasis on the emotional, social, and spiritual rather than the medical. “It’s not just so you’ll ‘get through’ illness, but how you’ll grow. We want to ensure that whatever happens medically, there will have been a more fulfilling life,” she says.
That message resonates for D., a 42-year-old with a degenerative neurological disorder, who explains, “When I was diagnosed, I thought my life was over. Even though doctors told me I had time until I would lose my ability to walk, I already felt like it was that day. All I could see was black and all I could feel was fear. I couldn’t talk to anyone. After taking part in the Partners for Life Couples Retreat, I began to be able to share my fears with my wife. I was afraid at first, but now we are going through this together, as a team. I know that I have my moments, but when I do, I have the people at Tishkofet who help me listen to my inner self and find my courage and meaning to live. Every day is a blessing — really!”
Patients come to Tishkofet from all parts of Israeli society and are treated on a sliding-scale fee basis. At the Jerusalem headquarters there’s an intake of some 15-20 new people per week, and the single-story house that serves as the Tishkofet base is at full capacity, with counseling sessions, art therapy, body work, and administration going on all day.
Tishkofet co-founder Dr. Ben Corn, whose day job is chairman of Radiation Oncology at Tel Aviv Medical Center-Ichilov Hospital, also maintains academic appointments at Tel Aviv University School of Medicine and the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. In 2011, he accepted the National Award for Volunteerism from President Shimon Peres on behalf of Tishkofet for “changing the way people face serious illness.”
Over the past year, Ben has been writing a popular weekly blog “52” at the Jerusalem Post. The blog has been another outlet for sharing the wisdom and caring behind the Tishkofet philosophy. A collection of his blog posts will soon be released as the book, “Think Like You’ll Die – ‘Cause You Will.”
As a physician who travels in both Israeli and U.S. medical circles, Ben notes that “many senior physicians are not embodying a compassionate approach towards patients.” Things are changing, he says, attributing the positive change to Israelis feeling more secure in their scientific credentials in the world.
“Israeli scientists are in the vanguard of cancer research and clinical trials. Once Israeli doctors felt secure on that stage, they allowed themselves to be open to entertain discussion of the human side of medicine,” he says.
Both Ben and Dvora credit Israel’s pioneering spirit for the success of Tishkofet’s programs. “This wouldn’t have happened in the U.S.,” says Ben. “The inertia is too strong.”
For Dvora, it’s the closeness and intimacy of Israeli society that makes it easy to get access to decision makers and has allowed their community-based program to make a large impact.
“Plus, Zionists are dreamers and want to be actively doing something to change society based on Jewish values,” she says. “Here the people in our midst matter.”
The organization recently launched an international twinning program that will link communities in Israel with those abroad by providing leadership and volunteer training through the Tishkofet community caring model.
Along with expanding Tishkofet services to other cities in Israel, the Corns believe that their philosophy and many of their programs are transferable to the U.S.
“The model is transportable; it will help tie Israel and American Jewry together,” Dvora says.