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Gilchrist Hospice Care plans Jewish outreach in Towson

Gilchrist Center Towson is building a new chapel as part of an outreach effort to Jewish families, who use hospice care less than some of the other denominations do.
Gilchrist Center Towson is building a new chapel as part of an outreach effort to Jewish families, who use hospice care less than some of the other denominations do.(MONICA LOPOSSAY / Baltimore Sun)

Sensing that Jewish families have been slower than Christians to use hospice services, the largest hospice organization in Maryland is reaching out to Jews with a new program in Towson aimed specifically at them.

Gilchrist Hospice Care, which serves patients in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, has announced a new initiative to expand the hospice program at its 34-bed Towson campus, Gilchrist Center Towson, at 555 W. Towsontown Blvd., by building a new Jewish chapel, family room, courtyard and kosher kitchen. No additional patient rooms would be built, however.

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Gilchrist, a longtime nonprofit organization that served 5,700 patients last year, including Jewish patients, has partnered with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore on a $6.8 million fundraising campaign, which includes the addition to Gilchrist Center Towson and a $2.8 million endowment.

John O'Malley knows what he does helps ease the suffering of his patients and the burdens of their families. It wasn't long ago he was on the receiving end. He was inspired to become a nurse when his wife died in 2010 in hospice.

The fundraising campaign is being led by Steven Fader, chief executive officer of Atlantic Automotive, whose late father had received hospice care from Gilchrist before his death, according to Gilchrist Executive Director Catherine Hamel. Fader could not be reached for comment.

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Funding commitments have come from numerous companies, foundations and organizations, including the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, the Judi and Steven B. Fader Family Foundation, the David D. Smith Family Foundation, the Whiting-Turner Foundation, the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Family Foundation, the Pearlstone Family Fund, the Rollins-Luetkemeyer Foundation, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation and the Adams Foundation and Rodgers Family Fund, according to a Feb. 5 press release from Gilchrist.

A specially selected advisory committee will oversee the program, officials said.

Gilchrist has been serving Jewish families for more than two decades, but the new program "takes it a major step further," Hamel said.

The 2,400-square-foot addition is expected to be open by June, although Gilchrist is already enhancing its home care and inpatient care for Jewish patients, with plans to place in their rooms symbols of Jewish cultural and religious beliefs, such as mezuzahs in roioms, inscribed with Hebrew verses, ansd, in the chapel, continuously burning lamps representing eternal light, and a meditation wall made of Jerusalem stone, Hamel said.

Officials also are reaching out to the rabbis of patients to become more involved in health care issues regarding congregants who are in hospice care.

In addition, Gilchrist is training its staff and volunteers to be more sensitive to the customs, rituals, laws and beliefs of Jewish patients, such as showing them where steps are because they are not supposed to use elevators on the Jewish Sabbath.

"I'm here to be their resource," said Chaya Lasson, manager of the new program.

"It's our goal to ensure that our care empowers our Jewish patients to make the best choices for themselves and their families — decisions that are both respectful of their religious values and mindful of the medical realities of their prognoses," Hamel said.

Gilchrist officials say national statistics suggest that Jewish patients are lagging behind the population as a whole in taking advantage of hospice care. According to statistics provided by Gilchrist, about 20 percent of 1,722 Jewish individuals whose funerals or burials were conducted between November 2012 and October 2014 by Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville had been on hospice with area providers at the time of their deaths. Sol Levinson & Bros. handles the majority of Jewish funerals in the Baltimore area, Gilchrist officials said.

The Stella Maris Hospice Prayer Shawl Ministry is one of many in the Towson area which knit or crochet shawls to give to patients, fellow church members, elderly and sick persons. So meaningful are the shawls that it is not unusual for people to be buried in them or have them laid over their casket.They become family heirlooms, a last treasured reminder of mom or dad. They are even ascribed with healing power, as one cancer patient who went into remission did.

By contrast, the hospice use rate in Baltimore County as a whole was 52.1 percent for 2013 and 54.1 percent for 2014, while in Baltimore City, the rate was 28.9 percent in 2013 and 23.6 percent in 2014, according to a survey prepared for the Hospice and Palliative Care Network of Maryland and provided by Gilchrist officials.

Nearly 42 percent of Medicare beneficiaries in Maryland who died in 2014 had used hospice care, Gilchrist officials said. Nationwide in 2014, nearly 46 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were on hospice care at the time of death, according to the same survey.

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