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Compassionate Alternatives: Options in Community Nursing

December 29, 2005
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With the concept of community nursing catching on, there are several configurations for such programs beyond the congregational model. Nurse Gilda Friedman works 10 hours a week for Jewish Family Services in Greensboro, N.C. Her position is funded by two grants, and she’s available to any Jew in the community.

“My phone was ringing off the hook the first day,” she says.

Friedman works mostly as an advocate, helping improve conditions in a local nursing home and visiting elderly Jews in the hospital to make sure they’re getting proper care.

“If you don’t have someone to advocate for you, you don’t get the services you need,” she says, telling of one 90-year-old woman who was being ignored by her physical therapist. “Once the nurses knew I was going to be there, they started paying attention to her.”

In Wichita, Kan., the Jewish federation sponsors a part-time senior outreach coordinator who spends eight to 10 hours a week visiting seniors and other homebound Jews, reading to them, helping them with paperwork and bringing food. She’s not a nurse or a social worker.

“That would cost too much,” federation executive director Judy Press says. But the federation doesn’t balk at earmarking $5,500 a year out of its annual campaign to provide this service to its elderly.

“These people are wasting away in nursing homes, and no one visits them,” she says.

In 2002 in Baltimore, a group of rabbis, nurses, social workers and other health care professionals formed Shleimut, a nonprofit that promotes team-based Jewish health care. According to the Shleimut model, a nurse, a rabbi and either a social worker or mental health worker team up to provide health care within the rubric of a congregation.

“We take the congregational nurse idea and expand it,” says Shleimut’s director, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin.

Very few congregations have put together the complete team, Cardin notes. In the New York City area, for example, she says it’s more common for synagogues to embed a social worker in the congregation, while other synagogues are more interested in nurses first.

“This allows congregations to be all-encompassing caring communities, helping people to respond to moments of felt need,” she says. “That moment could be felt by the person sitting next to you in shul, or by someone who plays cards with you. Then the professionals take the first step and reach out to make the call.”

That’s really what it’s about, say those involved in the issue. Instead of Jewish communities looking at congregational nursing as an unnecessary or threatening professional service, it should be considered part of the increasing embrace of the synagogue community, just another way to care for the entire person.

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