Unlike most illnesses, grief after a death has no cure, said Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman.
“One can never really comfort a person touched by death, but one can be supportive,” he said while sitting in the chapel at Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.
“In healthcare, we usually have a disease with a medicine for it. Pastoral care may be the one place where we don’t have a plan to correct it. We just have a plan to understand it.”
Braune-Friedman, 40, took over in June as the director of pastoral care at the facility, following the retirement of Rabbi James Michaels. His job is part administrative — overseeing the pastoral staff — and also involves spending an hour or two each day residents, comforting families and planning worship services.
Braune-Friedman was previously the chaplain at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. He remembers his relationships with patients there, including one man who died after Braune-Friedman moved to Washington.
“I had done his wife’s funeral, and counseled him through all that,” he said. “Then I saw him date other women after his wife passed. This is one area that’s difficult about moving. I’ll read in the obits about people passing and not being able to have those last moments with them.”
Braune-Friedman, a graduate of the Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, also has been a pulpit rabbi and a campus rabbi. He said pastoral care is unique, in that the job requires him to give a “spiritual accent” to the lives of residents, some of whom are suffering from severe cognitive diseases, such as dementia.
Braune-Friedman said as people reach their 80s and 90s, they begin to think about how to search for what is meaningful in their lives. And for many, that is through prayer.
Charles E. Smith Life Communities offers a full, traditional Jewish worship service on Saturdays. There is a Christian service on Sundays. Braune-Friedman also leads shorter services with prayers such as Kaddish, Oseh Shalom and Shalom Aleichem — parts of the liturgy he said that residents often find relaxing. The goal of the short services is to focus on the sights and sounds of Shabbat.
“We have minyan twice a day, and that makes them feel like they’re a part of something,” he said. “We try to highlight the musical aspect of the service. If we were to do a full service every day that would be taxing and not beneficial. So we cut out a little to make it more meaningful.”
One of the largest challenges of working with elderly residents, he said, is making them feel at home. The key is to be an active listener and repeat a simple message.
“I tell them, ‘We care about you, we’re here for you and you’ll always have support from us,’” he said.
Braune-Friedman said that after English, Yiddish is the most common tongue he hears every day.
“I wish I had learned more Yiddish than Hebrew, since that’s the language of choice,” he joked. “A lot of people are surprised I don’t know more Yiddish. But I know how to say zei gezunt [be well] to people.”
Michaels wrote in an email that he has been impressed with Braune-Friedman’s past experience, and is excited about the new rabbi’s approach.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the innovations he’ll make in the Department of Pastoral Care,” he wrote. “I will be happy to assist in any way I can.”