Officials announce Canada’s first ‘culturally Jewish’ hospice

From left, Dr. Sandy Buchman, board member of the Neshama Hospice, MPPs David Zimmer and Monte Kwinter (seated), hospice board member Debbie Berlin-Romalis and board chair Robert Kamen. (Ron Csillag photo)

In response to an urgent, even “desperate,” need, plans for Canada’s first residential hospice based on Jewish values were announced in Toronto on Feb. 12.

Though there are Jewish hospice programs offered by social service agencies, hospitals and seniors facilities in parts of Canada, the Neshama Hospice is planned as a standalone structure with 10 beds that will offer nursing, personal support, ambulatory care, bereavement counselling and other services to palliative patients.

To be located off Bathurst Street, ideally between Lawrence and Finch Avenues, the country’s first “culturally Jewish” residential hospice will welcome patients of all backgrounds, but will embrace such Jewish values as gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), tikun olam (repairing the world) and bikur holim (visiting the sick), a press conference held at the Sherman campus of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto heard.

Ontario Liberal MPPs Monte Kwinter and David Zimmer joined health-care and community officials in announcing the launch of the hospice. The province will contribute $2 million to help build the facility, and the Ministry of Health has committed $1 million a year, or about $100,000 per bed, for its operating budget.

Three years in the planning, the hospice is part of Ontario’s plan to build up to 20 new hospices within three years to extend palliative care to 2,000 people a year, Zimmer said.


“If there’s any time someone should be sensitive to a particular cultural or religious needs of any group, it’s at their end of life,” he said, adding that senior citizens are the fastest growing age group in Ontario.

The Neshama Hospice is embarking on an $18-million fundraising campaign that will cover land, construction, furnishings and an endowment for maintenance. About $10 million has been raised to date in commitments and pledges.

The facility is intended for those who cannot or do not wish to die at home, or in a hospital bed.

Publicity material says the hospice will “enhance and strengthen” existing programs in the Jewish community, such as Baycrest Health Science’s palliative care unit, Sinai Health System’s Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care, and Jewish Family & Child’s visiting hospice program.

A 2014 report by Health Quality Ontario, the provincial advisory body on health care, found that only 30 per cent of Ontarians with chronic illnesses receive hospice or palliative care when they die.

An auditor general report from around the same time found that Ontario had 271 hospice beds, but estimated that it needed to add between 484 and 809 new beds to keep up with demand.

Ontario is currently spending about $42 million a year to support 400 beds at 74 hospice sites in the province.

“We believe that the need for compassionate, respectful end-of-life care is really more urgent than ever as Toronto’s population rapidly ages,” said Dr. Sandy Buchman, a palliative care physician and a board member of the Neshama Hospice. “We are in desperate need of hospice beds.”

He said that the average stay at the Neshama Hospice will be 18 days, and will serve some 200 end-of-life patients per year.

The facility will honour Jewish holidays and dietary laws, Jewish laws and customs related to end-of-life issues, and funeral and mourning practices, officials said.

Neshama means “soul” in Hebrew, but also “essence,” Buchman explained. “It’s really about getting at the essence and dignity of the individual.”

Another Jewish value the new hospice will satisfy is welcoming the other, Buchman said.

“We hope Neshama Hospice is seen as members of the Jewish community helping the general community. We want to provide that really high quality of palliative care to all peoples of all backgrounds.”

Writing a year ago in Kavod, a journal for caregivers and families, Rabbi Ronald Weiss, director of chaplaincy service at Jewish Family & Child, said the notion of a Jewish hospice “has not always had an easy time gaining acceptance in the Jewish community.”

Many saw the hospice “as the place where the patient was abandoned to await death’s arrival. Judaism, with its theological focus on life in this world, originally saw the idea of hospice as antithetical to its beliefs,” Rabbi Weiss wrote.

But the Jewish hospice “is now seen as a means of enabling a person to live as well as possible for as long as possible. And this new way of looking at hospice and at caring for the terminally ill is very much in consonance with Jewish philosophy on life.”