Ask the Expert: Jews in the Hospital

What should nurses know?

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Question: I am a nurse and we are doing education lessons on the ways different cultures are impacted by a stay in the hospital. Also how we, as nurses can be more aware of the needs of Jewish patients and their families. Could you tell me of any spiritual concerns or needs I might encounter, and how best to help someone who is Jewish and in my care? Any information on your cultural needs would be very helpful.
--Cathie, Temple TX


Answer: It's great that you're so committed to ensuring that all of your patients are comfortable and receiving appropriate care, Cathie. Thanks for doing your homework!

I spoke to Jessica Weinberger, a Jewish nurse in Nashville, Tennessee about ways that nursing staff can accommodate the needs of a Jewish patient, and the first thing she said was, "Ask the family what their wishes and concerns are culturally, as every patient and patient's family is different."

This may seem obvious, but it's the most important part of providing appropriate care. Some Jewish families will be much more concerned with Jewish law than others. Some patients will have specific requests about modesty, or ways to celebrate Jewish holidays. It really depends on the family, so before you jump to any conclusions, it's best (and easiest) just to ask.

I also spoke with Susan Buchbinder, Director of Religious Life at the Council for Jewish Elderly in Chicago. Susan reiterated Jessica's point that asking is the most helpful thing you can do, and added that it's important not to make assumptions in these situations. Much better to ask a question than to hazard a guess and end up doing something offensive.

She also said, "Find resources which you can turn to to answer questions that you have. If your facility has a rabbi on staff in the Pastoral Care department, use that person as a resource. If not, go to local rabbis or reliable resources like MyJewishLearning for information." Of course, we appreciate the plug! Finally, she said, "Recognize that all individuals you work with have spiritual as well as physical and emotional needs. Allow that concept to guide you in your work."

Those are some general but important guidelines. But there are some things that are far more likely to come up than others, when it comes to Jewish patients. The foremost among these issues are Shabbat (the day of rest), kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), prayer, and issues of modesty.

In brief, observant Jews keep the 25 hours from sundown Friday until dark on Saturday as a period of rest during which they abstain from a variety of activities, from talking on the phone, to writing, to using electricity. In situations where a life is at stake (such as dialing 911 if someone is having a heart attack), one is obligated to break the Sabbath. However, if there is no imminent harm, some Jews may prefer to postpone various forms of treatments or activities until after Shabbat. If you know you're dealing with a patient who observes Shabbat in some way, your best bet is to say, "I know Shabbat is coming up this evening. Is there anything I can do to make sure you're able to observe it in the way you'd like?"

Kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, may also come up with some hospital patients. They may request special meals, or ask if they can eat food brought in by friends. Most hospitals have a protocol set up for ordering kosher meals, so even if you've never had to order one before, chances are they are available if requested.

Prayer is an important part of Jewish life, and it comes at certain times and with certain rituals. In traditional Jewish communities men pray three times a day (some women do, too). You may find that an observant Jewish patient frequently takes time to pray, or is joined by a group of at least nine others for prayer services. In the morning, observant men (and some women) pray while wearing something called tefillin, which is made out of two small wooden boxes with leather straps. Jewish prayer is mostly scripted, and as a result, many Jews are uncomfortable with impromptu prayers, preferring to recite a prayer that is written and recognized as part of Jewish liturgy.

Physical modesty is a major concern for many observant Jews, and this generally means observant Jews will wear certain kinds of clothing, and limit physical interactions with members of the opposite sex. In the context of medical care Jewish law allows for men and women to touch, but you may find that some observant Jews will request to have an aide or nurse of their own sex if possible. They may also wish to wear something over the hospital gown in order to preserve modesty. Of course, safety and health are always the first priorities, so if these requests can't reasonably be met, that is acceptable according to Jewish law, but it's good to know where they're coming from.

Thanks again for your hard work!

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