September 18, 2019

Offering Spontaneous Comfort at the Hospital

“Hi, my name is Dan. I’m a Spiritual Care Volunteer here at the hospital. I’m stopping by to see how you are; to chat, to offer support, to pray, to hear what’s keeping your spirit strong or what’s holding it back.”

That, more or less, is the opening gambit I use as I enter hospital rooms. In marketing terminology, these are “cold calls.” The individuals haven’t asked for a chaplain or other spiritual support, so it’s up to me to create an opening for them to let me into their spiritual journey.

Many patients don’t see themselves as on any such journey, and may say, essentially, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Others respond very positively, with something like, “I’m good – God is with me. Pull up a chair” or “Take my hand and let’s pray.” My visits can last from 10-15 seconds to as much as an hour, depending on the needs of the individual, their situation, and the rapport we build.

The medical needs that have brought patients to the hospital vary widely – from a diagnostic test or simple surgical procedure to a life-threatening illness. When I walk into the room, I don’t know anything about their condition beyond age, gender, and date of admission. That lack of information can lead to the need for some quick re-assessment. In one recent encounter, the very elderly patient was in the bed, apparently asleep, and her niece was sitting in chair. About 15 minutes into conversation with the niece, it came out that her aunt had died less than an hour before I arrived.

The work is non-denominational. I see patients of many different religious backgrounds (and some with none). If the patient is Jewish (as identified on the census list I get), I will offer ideas and responses from a Jewish perspective (including prayers such as Mi Shebeirach or Vidu’i). In the Oakland, CA area, many of those who list “Judaism” on their hospital registration form are only minimally involved with their heritage, but even so, they often welcome the chance to connect with it. 

I started this work in the aftermath of a session of the Gamliel Institute’s Course 4 on Nechama (“comfort”) that had focused on “spontaneous prayer.” Our tradition (or at least, my experience of it) doesn’t talk much about spontaneous prayer. A few days after the class, I was visiting a dying friend in the hospital, and decided to try putting to use what I had learned, by offering a prayer. It was simple, unrehearsed, and basic: I asked God’s blessing for her, that she find comfort and peace, and that those caring for her have wisdom and compassion. When I looked up, her daughter was in tears, and I realized that there was value in this type of offering. A week later, I had a “chance conversation” (if there really is such a thing) with a rabbi-chaplain at the local hospital, who told me about their Spiritual Care Volunteer program. I was ready.

What “works”? One approach I often use is to ask patients to tell me what their sources of strength are. The most common answers, not surprisingly, are family and faith, and those responses often lead to further conversation, including personal history and religious upbringing. I also ask what is getting in the way of their strength, because it’s often hard for patients to find a welcome ear for their anxieties.

Compliments to patients are always welcome. I may tell a patient that his/her smile lights up the room, or that being with him/her brings me joy or inspiration (as it often does).

And I don’t hold back when it seems as if a “tough” question is called for (although I do my best to ask gently). I have asked patients if they have made “final arrangements” or what they have been thinking/feeling about the possibility/likelihood of their death. In asking such questions, I am inspired by the pioneering work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross. The questions are always welcomed when I ask them, because patients know what’s going on and may have little opportunity to talk about it.

This is extraordinarily rewarding work. I consider myself honored to have people let me into the most intimate aspects of their lives, at a time of great vulnerability, and blessed to have the capacity and opportunity to listen to their stories.

I also want to take this occasion to salute the leadership of the Kaiser Permanente system, which has recognized that their patients need emotional/spiritual care as well physical care.


Dan Fendel is a teacher and Dean of Students for the Gamliel Institute and is on the board of Kavod v’Nichum. He is also co-author, with Rabbi Stuart Kelman, of both the Expanded Third Edition of Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness: Exploring the Meaning of Taharah and Nium Aveilim: A Guide for the Comforter. He was lead organizer of the East Bay Chevrah Kadisha Consortium, which helped spearhead the upcoming Bay Area–wide program, “Walking in the Valley of the Shadow,” on Jewish end-of-life practices. He co-founded the Chevrah Kadisha at Temple Sinai (reform) in Oakland, CA, and participates in the Chevrah for Beth Jacob Congregation (orthodox) in Oakland. He is Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, at San Francisco State University.






Taste of Gamliel registration is open. Join us for the 5 part webinar series with the theme The World To Come – Do You Have Your Ticket? The series will include one session each month from January to June, each on Sundays. 


NOT TOO LATE – You Can View ALL the sessions held on recordings! Register, watch the rest of the sessions live, and see the earlier sessions on recordings! This also works if you are busy for one of the sessions scheduled! For those registered, the sessions will be recorded and may be accessed afterwards (instructions will be provided following each session) so those who cannot watch live can still view the presentations.


Free, with a suggested $36 donation to help us defray the expenses of presenting the series.


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Those who wish can also register for, make a donation, and view the recordings of the series from last year, WE’VE GOT SOUL: YOUR LIFE IS OVER: DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR SOUL IS? Contact us to ask about this.




Now Online: information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA June 5-7 2016. Go to the page to view the details, or Register Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to plan to remain for an additional day following the conference for a live educational program. Information will be forthcoming about this event – look for it, and mark your calendar now!    






Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

Spring 2016:  

During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. This course will run from May 3rd to July 19th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST/9-10:30 pm AST. (12 class sessions). There will be an online orientation session Monday May 2nd at 8-9:30 pm EST. Past Students, please note: We are using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending the orientation sessions if you have not beein a Gamliel student since January 2016!  Also note that this is the last opportunity to take this course before the next scheduled offering of Course 6: Chevrah Kadisha International Perspectives, which includes a study mission trip.

Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course, and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who wish to undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

Fall 2016:

Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered weekly from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016, with an orientation session on September 5th. This course has no prerequisites, and is suitable for anyone who wishes to learn more about the various aspects of ritual, liturgy, and practices surrounding the end-of-life continuum (other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in Course 2). Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend. You can register online, and a full description of the course is there as well.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can request a 20% discount. There are also clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding to take Gamliel Institute courses. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


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