Ira Bergman, 59, was asked if he wanted to see a rabbi when he entered a hospice program in September 2008. He had been fighting colon cancer for more than four years when his care began at the Wissahickon Hospice and Palliative Home Care of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
His wife, Rhona, said that Ira had been an agnostic, but wanted to see the rabbi when he faced death.
Rabbi Tsurah August of the Jewish Hospice Network — of which Wissahickon Hospice is a partner — said that when she met with Ira at his home, she looked for his connections to Judaism. Ira played music, and August discovered a shofar in one of his instrument cases.
Since it was the month of Elul, which precedes the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, she told Ira about the hallowed tradition of blowing the shofar each day of that month.
She also talked about some of the shofar's symbolism.
One of them is that when a shofar sounds, it blasts through the boundaries between this world and the next; even though Ira had trouble breathing, he blew the shofar each day of Elul until he fell into a coma and died at the end of October.
August, who was ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion, in New York City, said this activity was meaningful for Ira and gave him something to do when he no longer had the energy for his many interests.
This, she said, reflects the importance of hospice care in enhancing the quality of a patient's life.
The purposes of such care — to comfort, remember and, yes, even celebrate — will be the focus of an inaugural conference of the Jewish Hospice Network that is taking place on Sunday, May 6.
The event, Oseh Shalom: Reflections on Lives Lived, sponsored by the Joan Grossman Center for Chaplaincy and Healing of the Jewish Hospice Network, is a program of the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia and is geared for those who have had a family member in a hospice program or would like to understand the program's benefits.
Hospice care uses a team approach; each patient has a medical unit that strives to keep the patient comfortable during their last days. August said that instead of using measures like chemotherapy to fight a disease, patients simply take medications to alleviate pain.
A social worker is also part of the team: Jamee Roberts, who fills that role at the Wissahickon Hospice — a JHN partner alongside Abington Memorial Hospice and Palliative Home Care; and Holy Redeemer Healthcare System, Hospice and Palliative Home Care — mediates between medical units and families to ensure that everyone's concerns are respected.
For background information, sometimes Roberts consults with August, which can come in handy. Roberts said that August helped her understand the objections of a grandson when the medical team wanted to reduce, instead of maintain, his grandfather's level of medical treatment.
And Roberts, in turn, helped the medical unit understand the grandson's objections. As a result, the grandfather's medical treatment was maintained, not reduced.
Hospices also provide secular counseling. Roberts said she helps patients deal with feelings of hopelessness by helping them set short-term goals.
Sam Wurtzel, 76, got emotional when he recounted how August made the death of his wife, Phyllis, more meaningful.
August said that when Phyllis was about to take her last breath, the family participated in a ritual that JHN had developed. They opened a window to symbolically let Phyllis' soul out, and recited with August the Shema around Phyllis' hospice bed.
Afterwards, Sam said he still felt like his world was coming to an end when his wife of 46 years died back in 2009, but that this ritual gave him a sense of fulfillment.
Social worker Roberts, Rhona Bergman and Sam Wurtzel will be at the gathering on Sunday, which, according to JFCS, will, "through traditional Yizkor memorial prayer, music, poetry, stories and art," offer "a rich tapestry of Jewish expression."
Bergman and Wurtzel are bringing framed pictures of their loved ones; Bergman also plans to read something she wrote about Ira and his shofar.
Professional musicians will provide appropriate music.
The Hospice conference is taking place on Sunday, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., being held at the Jewish Community Services Building, at 2100 Arch St.
For information, go to: www.jfcsphilly.org/osehshalom.