‘Hope is about defining goals, realizing possibilities’

‘Hope is about defining goals, realizing possibilities’

Israeli doctor touts chaplaincy services for critically ill

Dr. Benjamin Corn says chaplains can add the spiritual dimension when patients are making decisions on treatment.
Dr. Benjamin Corn says chaplains can add the spiritual dimension when patients are making decisions on treatment.

After Benjamin Corn’s father died of prostate cancer at the age of 50, the 11-year-old boy resolved to become a doctor. While his family was grieving at their home in Brooklyn, he, his mother, and his two siblings needed counseling — but it was not available. “There was no chaplain there,” he lamented during a Nov. 6 phone interview. 

“No one explained anything to us. The whole thing was hidden from us. After he died our family was pretty much abandoned. The rabbi did not know how to talk to us,” he said.

After graduating from Boston University and its medical school, Corn moved to Israel 19 years ago. He is now a professor of oncology at Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, chair of the Institute of Radiotherapy at the Tel Aviv Medical Center, and cofounder and executive chair of Gisha L’Chaim, or Life’s Door: Coping with Illness and Loss, along with his wife, Dvora. 

The organization works with the terminally or chronically ill individuals, their families, and with medical practitioners to enhance the quality of patients’ emotional lives.

He will bring his message to the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest on Wednesday, Nov. 16, as keynote speaker at “Creating a Caring Community Together.” The educational conference will be geared primarily to health care professionals, chaplains, and members of congregational caring and mitzva committees.

NJJN: The title of your speech is “Hope Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” What does that mean?

Corn: Hope is a phenomenon we are familiar with, but many people have misconceptions about what hope is. Cancer patients often give up hope if they think they can’t be cured. But my message is you actually can find hope by understanding several things. As much as everybody wants to be cured, they must also understand that you can modify the setting, Hope is really about defining goals and realizing the possibilities you can achieve. 

NJJN: Are you suggesting that hope can work even for patients with incurable diseases? 

Corn: If you have symptoms like pain or shortness of breath, the goal can be comfort instead of a cure. Sometimes a chaplain can help a patient confront their own mortality or a chaplain can work with a patient on different traits, whether it is anger management or generosity. You can also help the patients consider the next generation — in terms of their grandchildren, in terms of their valuables. That is a broad definition of hope — to find a way that people can still find hope, even if they face a chronic disease.

NJJN: Cecille Asekoff, chair of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee, said there are now 64 certified chaplains and six supervisors in Israel. At what stage of development is the chaplaincy program? 

Corn: I would say it is in an early stage because of the minority of hospitals that have chaplains and the minority of patients who have access to chaplains. In many hospitals, a chaplain is not part of the health care team — but Israel’s minister of health has not been sensitized to provide the money for chaplains.

NJJN: What is a patient missing if he or she does not have access to a chaplain?

Corn: If a patient does not receive the services of a chaplain, very often they have to prioritize and make decisions on treatment without the spiritual and emotional aspect. Some of us, like myself, can add the spiritual dimensions. 

NJJN: Catholics have an end-of-life ritual called Last Rites, in which a patient prays and confesses sins to a priest in preparation for dying. Does Judaism have a similar ritual?

Corn: Judaism has an end-of-life passage that allows one to take stock of what one has accomplished, whatever regrets there might be, and a chaplain can help prevent whatever regrets there might be from setting in. 

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