In the News
January 16, 2014
Hospice Shabbat Bags Comfort the Bereaved
“It felt like someone had put a warm blanket around my shoulders, and I didn’t even know I was cold.”
That’s how author Ellen Frankel of Marblehead described her feelings when a Jewish hospice volunteer left a Shabbat bag of challah, cookies, grape juice and electric candles in her father’s room as he lay near death last year in Chicago. Her father passed away a week later, but Frankel never forgot how much the simple gesture helped in one of her family’s darkest moments.
She returned home with an idea. Why not create a Shabbat bag program for local Jewish hospice patients? She contacted her rabbi, Baruch HaLevi, and Marla Gay, head of community relations at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, along with Sheryl Meehan, head of volunteers at Care Dimensions, formerly Hospice of the North Shore.
“My own experience was so comforting, I wanted to pay it forward,” Frankel said. “Whether or not people are observant, during their end-stage days, there is something profound about that connection with their faith — knowing they’re not alone.”
Frankel gathered a team of volunteers to work with Care Dimensions under the guidance of Rona Tyndyll, chaplain and coordinator of spiritual care, Nate Lamkin, head of bereavement, and Meehan. After the volunteers completed a five-hour training program in the basics of hospice care, they began distributing Shabbat bags last September at Kaplan House, Care Dimensions’ home in Danvers for terminally ill people.
In addition to electric candles, the bags contain grape juice, individual challahs and cookies, lovingly prepared and donated each week by Bernard and Jessica Newman, owners of Newman’s Bakery in Swampscott.
Each week, Kaplan House tells Frankel how many Jewish patients are there, and volunteers visit and offer each patient and family a Shabbat bag. Inside is a card with the appropriate prayers in Hebrew and English transliteration, as well as an explanation of the Shabbat bag program. “It is such a privilege to walk into a family’s life at the end,” Frankel said. “To sit with them and be with them at such a tender moment — it’s so beautiful. We are nurturing them both emotionally and physically.”
She remembers visiting one woman in her last days, whose daughter and sister were in the room. Frankel and another volunteer explained why they were there, and the sister burst into tears.
“Something about our visit and the Shabbat bag touched her. She told us she had a feeling that someone saw her heart,” Frankel said. Although it was not yet sunset, the sister asked if they could light the candles right away. She then said she needed something to cover her head. Looking around the room, she took a tissue out of the box, put it on her head and said, “I’m ready.”
An elderly man whom Frankel and her husband Steve visited recently wasn’t able to say much, yet he indicated that he wanted prayers. After the Frankels recited Kiddush, the man nodded that they should continue. The prayers brought him great comfort.
Frankel is a licensed social worker who for 15 years specialized in the field of eating disorder treatment and prevention. Now a full-time writer, she is the author of “Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community,” co-authored with Rabbi HaLevi; the novel “Syd Arthur”; and “Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature and Inner Growth.” She and Rabbi HaLevi are currently working on another book, “Spark Seekers: On Death and Dying.” Frankel wants to expand the Shabbat bag program, and several other facilities with Jewish hospice patients have expressed interest.
“Bringing a Shabbat bag is something so simple, but beautiful,” she said. She also feels the program allows her to connect with her father in his death.
“I want to call the hospice in Chicago where my father was, and tell the woman who left us a Shabbat bag what her kindness and gentleness meant. She has no idea her visit created this. The Shabbat bag program helps me to give other people what I received in beauty and kindness.”