DANVERS – One Friday night in February 2013, Ellen Frankel of Marblehead sat at the bedside of her dying father at a hospice house in her native Chicago. Unexpectedly, a volunteer came into their room with everything necessary for an impromptu Shabbat meal: electric candlesticks, challah, a box of cookies, and a bottle of grape juice.
“It really did feel like someone put a warm blanket from the dryer around my shoulder, and I didn’t even know how cold I was,” said Frankel, who is now a bereavement counselor with Care Dimensions in Danvers, formerly Hospice of the North Shore. It was her father’s last Shabbat.
Frankel returned to the North Shore hoping to pay forward this act of kindness that had brought her comfort during one of the most difficult times in her life. Frankel was volunteering at Hospice of the North Shore at the time, so she knew just who to call. She enlisted the help of Sheryl Meehan, the head of volunteers, and Nate Lamkin, who at the time was the director of bereavement services.
She also partnered with Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott in a number of ways. Baruch HaLevi, the rabbi of Shirat Hayam at the time, used a discretionary fund to help pay for the first batch of electric candles. Shirat Hayam congregant Marla Gay helped create attractive designs for the prayer cards, providing photos and transliterations. The first group of volunteers were a group of women from the synagogue who were part of a spiritual community with Frankel known as the “Spirited Sisters.”
Now, every Friday that there is a Jewish patient in hospice care at the Kaplan Family Hospice House, a volunteer arrives with challah, two bottles of grape juice, a bag of cookies (which are donated by the recently reopened Newman’s Bakery of Swampscott), electric candlesticks, and a card of Shabbat prayers. Frankel believes that for many Jews, even non-religious ones, the memories and traditions associated with Shabbat can have healing powers, especially when it is often the last that person will experience.
“Sometimes you weren’t lighting the candles for a good part of your life, but you remembered a great-aunt, or grandparent, or something about that time,” Frankel said. “I think at the end of life, people find comfort in going back to tradition.”
Volunteers come in, introduce themselves, and if the patient is responsive, ask if they would like to observe Shabbat together. After the Shabbat rituals are complete, volunteers often stay and chat with patients and their families. Frankel recalls a man who chanted his Haftarah portion to her, and requested less challah and more cookies. Another patient wanted to sing, and Frankel, Lamkin, and the whole family joined together in song.
Other patients are unresponsive, yet volunteers stay with them for a while. “If they were unresponsive, I would sit by their bed, and I would say the blessings quietly so that they could hear them, because when someone is in a coma, the last sense to go is hearing,” said Michele Tamaren, a spiritual director and retired special educator from Marblehead who has been volunteering for the program since its inception. “Sometimes I would just sit afterward and be present.”
Other times, patients talk about how it feels to be at the end of their life. “A woman in her late 80s surrounded by loving family clasped my hand, pulled me close, and whispered in my ear: ‘Remember, life goes by so fast – so very, very fast,’” said Tamaren. “I remember her words, her voice, and her wisdom – I always will.”
Because Newman’s Bakery donated the food for the Shabbat bag program, the endeavor was put on hold when Newman’s shut down last year. Now that Newman’s is back, so is the Shabbat bag program: new volunteers are training this week to prepare to begin delivering the bags by mid-March. To honor the re-opening of both Newman’s and the volunteer program, Frankel, Care Dimensions Director of Volunteer Services Sheryl Meehan, and Care Dimensions President and CEO Pat Ahern presented a certificate of appreciation to Jessica and Bernard Newman at their bakery on February 15.
“I knocked on your door and you listened to me about my dad,” said Frankel to the Newmans, recalling how the nearly six-year partnership began. “You listened to me about my thoughts and all the plans that we had, and there was no hesitation – you said, ‘We can do this.’