As a professor of oncology at Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, Dr. Ben Corn can muster cutting-edge technology and treatment in caring for his patients.
But he also brings something else that he feels is too often overlooked by his colleagues: hope and spirituality.
He and his wife, Dvora, are cofounders of Life’s Door-Tishkofet, a U.S.- and Israel-based nonprofit that assists patients and their families by providing emotional and spiritual support. The organization also trains professionals and volunteers on how to engage the seriously ill.
“I am a religiously observant person, but my agenda is not to bring people to religion,” said Corn, speaking Oct. 22 at the Lena and David T. Wilentz Senior Residence on the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset. “Many people think that [spirituality] is synonymous with religiosity, but it’s really very subjective. It’s very hard to create a definition of spirituality.”
When he attempts to do so, he describes it as whatever brings compassion, concern, and the recognition that every person has a legacy to leave behind.
In his talk, the Brooklyn native recounted, through personal experience, photos, and even song, the devastating effects of isolation and loneliness that often accompany terminal illness.
Corn spoke of the ability to transform an experience of “anguish, confusion, or denial to one that encourages collaboration, growth, and healing for patients, families, and professionals.”
Life’s Door — the English name is a play on the Bob Dylan song, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — was designed to prevent the kind of isolation that led one of his patients, Israeli news anchor Adi Talmor, to commit suicide. Talmor was suffering from lung cancer and being treated for pain.
A renowned figure in Israel, Talmor chose to take his life “because he felt he really wasn’t getting the support he needed. We didn’t create a comfort zone for him to be himself,” said Corn, adding that too often health-care professionals abandon the spiritual care of patients.
He cited author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, describing him as “my hero” for his ability to find meaning under the most horrific of circumstances.
“If Viktor Frankl can find spirituality in a place like Auschwitz so can anyone else,” said Corn, who received Israel’s Presidential Award for Volunteerism in 2011.
Life’s Door holds conferences and workshops to help those who visit the seriously ill. Corn works closely in the United States with the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and its Whippany-based executive director, Cecille Asekoff.
In fact, the next day, Corn spoke at “Creating a Caring Community Together: A Pastoral Training Program for Congregational Volunteers” offered at the Aidekman campus by the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest, which Asekoff also heads (see page 8).
In Somerset, Corn called Asekoff “my matchmaker” for helping get the chaplaincy discipline off the ground in Israel, where Life’s Door has created seven “caring communities.” They encompass 50 affiliated organizations that “create a bridge in the health-care community” among health-care institutions, nursing homes, synagogues, and community centers.
“American expats have had a tremendous influence on Israelis who now see the benefits of volunteerism,” said Corn, who said those volunteers have empowered patients who feel, “I must be pretty important if someone wants to give their time to me.”
Corn also described methods to bring hope and comfort to the dying. One of the latest is a “ketuba of hope,” based on the Jewish wedding contract, which lists what patients stood for during their life.
“Can you imagine the power of having that decorated and framed and hanging in your room?” asked Corn.
At times in his talk, Corn turned to the healing power of music. He led the audience in singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — a Boston Red Sox anthem that took on new meaning after the Boston Marathon bombing — and “We Shall Overcome.”