Rabbi Steve Leder’s Yom Kippur sermon: What Have I Learned About Death?


The letter came from Hillside cemetery in June…the kind of letter that always gets my attention: “Buy now, price increases on July 1st.” I’ve been to Hillside 500, 600 times, maybe more. But this time was different. This time it was for me. It was for Betsy. I was buying the last piece of real estate we will ever inhabit.

I looked at a few different Leder Plot possibilities. Which should it be? Fountain, bench, path or tree adjacent? “This one,” I said to the sales woman, after wandering and pondering for a few minutes. A double plot between the fountain and the bench. Section 5, row 11, plot 8— my eternal coordinates.

I stood on my little rectangle for a good long while. I felt the breeze. I imagined Betsy bereft, Aaron and his future wife, Hannah and her future husband, their children, my grandchildren, sitting beneath a green awning on white folding chairs while some other rabbi helps them tear the black ribbon, utter the words, and turn a spade of dirt upon my plain pine casket. They will be sad, they will get back into a dark limousine, loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and journey home to bagels and stories, a flickering candle and Kaddish. They will cry and they will laugh and I, will be gone….

It is a strange thing, it is a sobering thing, to stand upon one’s own grave.

Tonight is supposed to make us feel the very same way. Yom Kippur was designed by the sages as an annual rehearsal for our death. We neither eat nor drink because the dead neither eat nor drink. We wear white to remind us of the white burial shroud into which a traditional Jew is sewn upon death. We begin with an empty ark, the word for which in Hebrew is aron—which is also the word for casket. The three Torahs we hold represent the bet din, the three judges in the heavenly court above.

We begin Kol Nidre staring into an empty casket, standing before the court of eternity. We end Yom Kippur afternoon with the very same words that are recited when a person dies “Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai, is God.” When the Yom Kippur prayer book asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” The answer for each of us is, “I will.”

Unlike most people, Rabbis don’t have the luxury of thinking about death only once a year on Yom Kippur or a handful of times over decades of life. On July 15th I completed my 30th year as your rabbi. This means many wonderful things, but it also means thirty years of seeing death up close. So what have I learned from 30 years of death that I can share with you on this evening when we are commanded to consider our own deaths in order that we might change our lives?

1.

The first thing I have learned about death might surprise you, which is, there are many things worse than dying. I have held the hands of hundreds of dying people. It might amaze you to know that not once, not one time has any of them been afraid. There are rare exceptions but most people die at the end of a very long life or if young, after a long, debilitating illness. Age and disease have their own rhythm and power. They teach us, they carry us along, preparing us and the people we love for death. For most, death comes as a sort of peaceful friend.

Most people are ready to die the way we are all ready to sleep after a very long and terribly exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around us and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed. We are not afraid. The rabbis called death minucha n’chonah—perfect sleep. Disease, age, life itself prepares us for death and when it is our time, death is as natural a thing as life.

Here’s some good news. This means if you are afraid of dying it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. And when it is really your time to die, you will be at peace and welcomed into the arms of God.

2.

If life is good then death must be bad is the way most people think, but it really isn’t so. I am not for a moment trying to make sense of the death of a child or anyone who has not been granted his or her full measure of life. But generally speaking, is more really better or is there something about death that defines the essence of life itself?

Imagine a world without death. Without death to what would we aspire? Could life be serious or meaningful without mortality? Could life be beautiful? “Death,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the mother of beauty.” The beauty of flowers depends on the fact that they soon wither. How deeply could one deathless “human” being really love another? It is the simple fact that we do not have forever that makes our love for each other so profound.

And finally, without death, would there be such a thing as a moral life? To know that we will die means we must stand for something greater than ourselves in life. It is death Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon that makes us human in the best sense of that word. We contemplate death on Kol Nidre in order to become our best, most human selves.

3.

There is a difference between prolonging life and prolonging death. When I am summoned to the hospital by a family that must decide whether or not to allow some procedure, amidst the stress, chaos and confusion I ask a simple question. Is this going to prolong your loved one’s life or prolong your loved one’s death? It is loving to prolong life; a chance to live and love and laugh again. But it is cruel to prolong death.

If you are wondering how you will know whether you are prolonging life or prolonging death. I can tell you only this. You will know. Then you must have the depth of love and courage within your heart to act upon what you know. To truly love someone is sometimes to let them go.

4.

Jews don’t know Shiva. I am not sure when it happened, but most reform Jews have lost touch with what Shiva is really supposed to be. Sitting Shiva is supposed to ease the burden on the mourners. This means we are supposed to take care of them after the funeral. They are not supposed to throw a party to entertain us.

The rabbis knew what they were doing when they mandated seven days and nights of being taken care of by the community, of staying home, staying put, taking the time to remember, to pray, to say Kaddish. When someone you care about becomes a mourner help organize the food, the parking, the chairs, the everything needed for the Shiva at their home.

When you arrive at the Shiva, do not approach the mourners. Just be close by so they can summon you if they wish. If they do, do not distract them by avoiding the subject of their loved one’s death. Talk about their loved one, share your memories. They want to remember. They need to remember, to talk, to let it out, to grieve.

A man whose thirty-year-old daughter died in a car accident said at the Shiva as he looked around the room at the people who came to comfort him, “This changes nothing. But it means everything.” Showing up matters. Hear me reform Jews–Hold a proper Shiva, and I promise Shiva will hold you when you need so badly to be held.

5.

Be you. People who are facing death or mourning do not really want or need us to approach them with drawn faces and whispered sympathies. They need us to be with them in death who we are with them in life. If you are a hugger, hug. If you are a joker, joke. If you are a story teller, tell stories. If you are a feeder, feed them. If you are a Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon doer. Do for them. Just be who you are and have always been for them. That is what people need and want. They are sad enough without your sad face. Tell them the funniest story you know about their loved one. When mourners laugh, it means they will survive. When it comes to death, laughter is a gift.

6.

There is an old joke about the French that says: “The French are like everyone else, just more so.” Death makes everyone more so. If a person was private in life, she will be private when dying. If he was a wise-cracking optimist in life, he will be a wise cracking optimist in death.

If your family was tight, loving, and supportive in life, your family will be thus as you face death. If your family was dysfunctional, distant, and fractured in life, it will pull together briefly to make funeral plans and get through the day, but soon enough, it will be fractured again.

People and families face death exactly the way they face life—this is sometimes times terrible, and sometimes beautiful, but it is almost always true and it is best not to expect otherwise.

7.

Anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief. Grief is not a linear process with sadness diminishing each day until it clears up like some infection. Grief ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows. Sometimes we can stand up in it, other times it pulls us under, thrashes and scares us, the world is upside down and we cannot breathe.

When that wave called grief comes, it is best to float with the pain and the emptiness, give in to it, be with it, take your time, and then stand up again.

We lose so much to death. Half our memory is gone with the only person on earth who shared our memories of that incredible trip, pizza from that little place down the alley, the babies’ first stumbles across the room, that old white Ford we took cross country when we were young and had no money.

We lose the only mother, the only father we will ever have. We lose so much love to death and if that love is real, and deep, the grief is real and deep.

Grief is not a race to be won or an ill to be cured. To deny grief its due is to deny the love we have for those we have no longer. Do not fight grief when it comes. Float with it…then, stand again.

8.

The rabbi does not write your eulogy after you die. You write it with the pen of your life.

9.

When my friend Debra’s mother died recently I asked her what she learned from it all. Her answer? “Nobody wants your crap.” We spend so much of our lives working, working, working to buy so much that amounts to—nothing.

I sat next to woman on a plane back to LA from Cincinnati. I don’t usually talk to people on planes because I have to lie about what I do in order to get any peace. In this case I was honest and the woman immediately handed me her card. She owns a nationwide business called Everything But the House. She sells the stuff in people’s homes after they die. Their children don’t want most of it. No one they knew wants it. The business nets over 120 million dollars a year.

We spend our lives acquiring things we think matter—mostly they don’t. Filling ourselves up with things is like trying to eat a picture of food.

A group of American tourists visited one of the most famous Eastern European Rabbis of the last century known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” in his little town of Radun. When they arrived, the Rabbi was in his small study with a rickety desk and a few books.

One of the incredulous tourists said, “Rabbi, where is all your stuff?” The Chofetz Chaim smiled, “Where is all yours?” “But we are just passing through,” the man answered. “So am I,” the rabbi said with a wise nod.

Death is a powerful reminder to buy less, and to do more, live more, travel more, and give more instead. No one wants your crap.

10.

The afterlife might be real. Judaism has a lot to say about the afterlife and much of it is contradictory. Views range from Ezekiel’s resurrection vision in the Valley of Dry Bones that take on flesh, to the transmigration of souls, which is Judaism’s version of reincarnation, to heaven and hell scenarios in the Talmud, to the rationalist and humanists who say there is no afterlife. It is easy to say we live on in memory—but the truth is, at some point there will not be a single person left alive who remembers us.

So what can we credibly say about the other side?

I have seen about 800 dead bodies. A body is not a person. It is a vessel. There is so much more to us than our bodies. But where does the soul go? I do not know. But I have heard too many stories, real stories, to dismiss the possibility of an afterlife.

My wife’s best died fifteen years ago. Every year, every year on her friend’s birthday Betsy sees a lady bug. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps not.

Lorin told me this story. “At one of my grief group meetings, we had to go around and answer ‘If you could say one thing to your spouse right now what would it be?’ I said ‘Please, keep showing me signs you are here with me.’ I returned to my car. Out of the 100s of songs in my iTunes library, Springsteen’s Promised Land started playing – the one song Eddie told me he wanted played at his funeral.”

These stories and the hundreds of others I have heard bring me great warmth and hope and strength.

Dreams, butterflies, lady bugs, a smell, a vision, a song, a soft breeze in a hard moment– -these reminders may or may not be a presence, but they are real and they are to be treasured…they are their own afterlife. More we cannot know….

11.

Headstones. Kafka was right when he said “The meaning of life is that it ends.” It’s true. Death is a great teacher because it informs the living about what really matters. We are here tonight to think about what really matters.

When I walk through cemeteries I am always struck by the uniformity of the inscriptions on headstones. Sure, there are a few funny ones—like Rodney Dangerfield’s which says: “There goes the neighborhood.” Or Mel Blank’s that says “That’s all folks.” But mostly, headstones mention the same few things about people.

When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.

It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother.

That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.

And so, this simple prayer:

God, we stand tonight before our open grave, before an open book, before You. Help us, as we imagine our deaths, to make the most of our lives.

Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

 

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Reflections in a mirror

The Place of Sorrow, the Sorrow of that Place by Craig Taubman


When my in-laws Charlotte and Dr. Eli Brent passed away last year, these words by Marsha Falk became a comfort.

“All things are born small and grow large –

except grief, which is born large and grows small”

A year later, these words still resonate – and yet, the loss continues to loom large. We know our grief will soften with time and we also understand that time is not in our control.

Initially, I found comfort in honoring their memory by embracing their life lessons. They were lessons modeled every day while they were with us, and lessons that still resonate in their absence.

 “What’s your price?”

“When a door is shut, open a window.”

“Don’t extinguish flames, light lights.”

As time slips away, I now hear their voices at unexpected times, like Wonder Woman. I’ve never seen a super hero movie, but when Gal Gadot’s mother Queen Hippolyta tells her daughter the following, all I could think of, was my wife

“You have been my greatest love.

Today you are my greatest sorrow”

I saw them in this season’s House of Cards episode 6 when President Underwood turned to the camera invoking these words by Professor Batty to Goofy on how to flip a coin for life’s most important decisions:

“Life is but a gamble.

Let flipism guide your ramble.”

I’m not sure if life’s a gamble, but this past year has certainly shown me that life is fragile, and death is the reminder.

I even saw Eli and Charlotte in a recent article about the terrorists who killed Israeli soldier Hadas Malka. One of the killers, posted a tweet stating: “We are all temporary. The world is not ours. We just walk in it and leave everything behind. God, assign our lives some good for which we shall meet you.” How a person can use this as justification to murder another is beyond me and yet, I heard Eli’s query, “So Craigo, what’s it all about? And I would answer, “I’m not sure.”

This I know. It’s good to still have them in my life in these unexpected moments. It affirming to know that the values they received from their parents to make the world a better place and pursue justice, have been passed on to our generation. It’s comforting to see our children embrace these same values as generous and kind people. I also know that life is fragile and death but a reminder.  I have not figured it all out, but I do know that love is the way in.

It always has been, it always will be.

Craig Taubman has left an indelible imprint on the Jewish American experience through his original compositions and live performances. His songs bridge traditional Jewish themes and ancient teachings with passages and experiences from contemporary Jewish life.

Craig has also enjoyed a successful career in television and film composing music for Disney, Fox, HBO, and PBS series. He wrote the theme music for the Coca Cola Olympic Pavilion, as well as the feature films Andre, Pinocchio, and Disney’s Toontown.

Having traveled for years meeting people from communities large and small, Craig – a natural “connector” – became passionate about bringing diverse people and cultures together. He branched out to plan and oversee the production of community building projects, including Friday Night Live, The Celebrate Series, Jewels of Elul, and in 2013 the Pico Union Project, a multi-faith cultural arts center and house of worship.

Craig recently released 30 Days, a Journey of Love, Loss and Healing, a unique package of thirty introspections from poets, faith leaders, artists, healers and authors, to help people on their journey toward hope and healing.

 Craig Taubman

craignco@aol.com

Get Inspired!

www.picounionproject.org

“love your neighbor as yourself”

 

Craig Taubman

Craig Taubman

___________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah, ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free preview/overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, also at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

Prayeng man

When Prayer is Not Enough by Rabbi Janet Madden


Dying as Part of Life

In How We Die, surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland wrote: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died—in a sense for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.”

One of Nuland’s aims was to disabuse his readers of the notion of death with dignity; he wanted to point out that in fact death is messily undignified. But as a rabbi who has worked as a hospice chaplain and who is currently working as a hospital chaplain, I find these words and thoughts beautiful, even inspirational.  Although I am a well-schooled layperson in terms of the dying process and its toll on the body, the blessing of my work is that I am not confined to care only for the body.

I have attended three deaths in the past three days, and I’ve been pondering Nuland’s words as I encounter the mysterious and mystically liminal moments of life’s sacred portals: birth and death. I know and accept the facts: everything that lives, has ever lived and will ever live will die. This reality unfurls like a news crawl in the back of my brain while I am offering prayers and blessings for newborns and their parents; these words come always to the forefront of my mind as I attend a death.

The Personal Impact

But for a woman who is sobbing petitionary prayers in a hallway outside an ICU room as a rapid response team attempts to revive her husband or for a man who seems to physically shrink day by day as he sits at the bedside of his wife, clinging to hope that a test result that will lead to a miraculous reversal of her decline, the truth that life ends holds no beauty and is not assuaged by a sense of the universal.

The learning curve for those who put their faith in the human body (“He’s always been a fighter,” “She’s so incredibly strong”) or medical knowledge (“There must be something else you can do—another test—something?”) is excruciatingly steep. Even for those who accept that life is ending and for those who find comfort in prayer and ritual, there is profound shock in coming to the moment when the veils between the worlds thin and the irrevocable divide between life and death manifests.

In addition to the death itself, there are the after-shocks. Before the bereaved become mourners, in the first moments and hours when they are confronting the painful reality of loss, they are plunged into the business of death. The newly-bereaved must sign a release form for the body, observe a time limit that dictates how long they can stay with the body in the hospital room, make decisions about the disposition of the body, notify family and friends and answer questions about when and how death occurred and begin to make plans what comes next both for the deceased and for themselves. If the newly-bereaved are particularly unfortunate, they must also deal with learning that someone has posted the news of the death on facebook within minutes of being informed of the death, thus making public what has not yet had a chance to be communicated within the family.

Prayer is not enough

In these moments, prayer–no matter how beautiful, how sublimely profound, how potentially comforting–is not enough. Those of us who midwife the souls of the dying must transition to the things of olam ha zeh–this world. We must tend to the psycho-spiritual-emotional and physical needs of the living. It is not good enough to finish a Viddui, the final confession, and express our condolences. It is not good enough to ask the newly-bereaved “What can I do for you?” or “What do you need?” Shock and grief are paralytics. This is another liminality– the “sinking-in” time, the moments when families begin to grasp how this death has forever changed their lives. The time just after a death parallels the midrashic moment at the Sea of Reeds when G-d tells Moshe that there is a time for prayer and a time for action. The liminality of this time demands that clergy must wade into the swirling murkiness of shock and grief and position ourselves as comforters and guides, sometimes reassuring families that yes, their family member really is dead, sometimes simply standing by to bear witness to the tears, anger, endearments and reassurances that emerge.

The Role of Chaplain

Clergy cannot shelter behind prayerful words. What we can best offer is our calm and consistent presence, both spiritual and physical. Unless families request that we leave, we should stay with them until they and we discern that it is time for us to leave. Whether we are educating the family about the after-death care of their family member or listening to stories about the deceased or calling the mortuary on the family’s behalf or fetching tea or a blanket or waiting with the family until the mortuary transportation arrives or making sure that their parking is validated, what the newly-bereaved most need is to be cared for, to be reassured that for those of us who routinely deal with death and dying, the death of their family member is not commonplace. No matter the specific configurations and complications of their relationships, death changes things. Whether families self-identify as observant, religious, spiritual but not religious, or non-believers, they want and need to see the death of their family members as something more than a biological inevitability.

I have the same need. For me, attending deaths and tending to the needs of families offer uniquely sacred opportunities to connect with other humans, to witness the rawness that is unleashed from broken hearts, to come tantalizingly close to being as fully human as I am able to be, to be in awe again and again.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

___________

KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open.

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our preliminary conference program.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.

Register for the conference now.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton, but rooms are limited; please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options – contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

Questions? Email info@jewish-funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.
______________

TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email info@jewish-funerals.org.    

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

________________________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

Expired And Inspired

Vibrancy of the Deathbed Confession (Vidui) by Jean B. Berman


Vibrancy of the Deathbed Confession (Vidui), based on Learnings from Gamliel Course 4: Nechama (Comfort) by Jean Berman

Raised in a household with Jewish ethical, social, and intellectual values but little prayer of any kind, all my life I have bristled at prayers that ask the Holy One for favors or repent of sins.

In my 60’s, I find myself being drawn into the heart of Judaism. I identify not as simply a Jewish person but as part of the Jewish people. Part of my journey includes searching for meaning behind the words, including those I react unfavorably to and traditions that repulse me. I am coming to value our tradition more, and I am learning to listen deeply within to catch glimpses of understanding and to open to experiences that seems foreign or antithetical to me.

Vidui

I have always found the concept of vidui challenging. I have come in contact with teachings that have brought some understanding in the moment but little that stayed with me or substantially changed my experience of the Al Cheyt on Yom Kippur. As I began to say daily prayers a few years ago, I picked those that had resonance for me, and Ashamnu was not one I chose. I did not look forward to learning about the deathbed confession (vidui), thinking it was a depressing thing to say at the threshold of moving from the visible world into the invisible one. Having been present at a number of deaths, I have intuitively offered a supportive, silent presence or sang songs that brought comfort. I could not imagine myself encouraging a goses, someone in the process of actively dying, to speak these words.

A Change

My heart opened while reading alternative forms of the vidui authored or collected by Alison Jordan (website https://sites.google.com/site/viduivariations/). Reading language that was meaningful to me, learning that a deathbed vidui can help one to unburden, let go and feel forgiven, my perspective changed. Writing my own deathbed vidui brought me a sense of deep peace and of being gathered into the Beloved.  A daily reciting brings the feel of my death close, and heightens my joy in being alive.

As Judaism has adapted over the ages to be relevant to people where they are, I now have an age-old ritual made new again that blesses me and gives me another meaningful way to bring blessing to those I serve.

Jean Berman speaks and leads workshops on Honor and Comfort: The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning, Care of the Newly Dead – An Inquiry into Intuition and Tradition, and How Death Enhances Life: Heightening our Awareness. She enjoys walks in nature, kayaking and playing ukulele, and lives on Peaks Island, Maine. She is a graduate of the Gamliel Institute, and a Board member of Kavod v’Nichum.

Jean B. Berman

 

___________

KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Early registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, has been extended for one week to May 8.

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our Preliminary conference program.

Let us know if you are interested in home hospitality.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5 Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

Register for the conference now. The early rate has been extended for just one week to May 8.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

Questions? Email info@jewish-funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.

______________

TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The May 21st session is being taught by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email info@jewish-funerals.org.    

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

________________________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance. or call 410-733-3700.

____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

Isn’t it depressing? by Rena Boroditsky


Expired And Inspired

Expired And Inspired

[Ed. Note: Republished from an earlier time. — JB]

Isn’t it Depressing?

People say to me, “I don’t understand how you do your job,” or,”What’s it like to be surrounded by death all the time?  Isn’t it depressing?”

It’s not depressing, but it can be sad. Those of us behind the scenes, the Shomrim who sit vigil with our loved ones, the members of the Chevrah Kadisha who reverently wash, purify and dress our loved ones..we feel the sadness.

We notice when families have one loss after another. We see the connections and overlap between families, and we see the ripple effect of death in the community. We often have personal connections to and memories of the deceased. It is a privilege for us to be able to serve in time of need. Death is very intimate. We see a slice of a family’s life at a very private and painful time.

And we feel immense sadness as we care for those who have no family and few friends. It is truly humbling and heartbreaking to attend a funeral where no one actually knows the deceased. Many of our staff also volunteer as pallbearers and minyanaires, to make sure that every individual is buried with respect and compassion, far above and beyond the call of duty.

On Rosh Hashana, or cleaning my house for Pesach, or lighting the Chanukah candles with my family, I remember the women I have cared for. My heart feels the heaviness of families facing their first Yom tov (holiday) without their mother, Baba, bubbe, auntie, sister.

When I light my Shabbat candles, my thoughts always include an acknowledgment of women no longer “benching licht“, their physical light in this realm literally extinguished. I like to believe that their “soul lights” continue to illuminate and guide their families … not far away … just beyond the veil of our understanding.

Rena Boroditsky is the Executive Director of the Chesed Shel Emes, the non-profit Jewish funeral chapel and Chevrah Kadisha in Winnipeg, Canada. For fifteen years, she has been a student and teacher of end-of-life Jewish rituals. Rena has been recognized in her community for her service. Rena has led sessions at Kavod v’Nichum conferences and at Limmud events in the US & Canada. She launched Death Cafe Winnipeg. She has served in past and presently as a board member of Kavod v’Nichum. She has been a lecturer and student in the Gamliel Institute. She is engaged in developing additional courses for advanced Gamliel Insitute students. Rena is a member of the first graduating class of the Gamliel Institute, having completed the required studies and projects, and she participated in the inaugural Israel Study Mission, the heart of the sixth course in the Gamliel Institute curriculum, International Perspectives.

Rena Boroditsky

Rena Boroditsky

______________

TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

________________________

KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Plan to join us June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

____________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

 ____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

 

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My unwanted adventure


Based on our ages, her long-lived parents and the fact that women tend to live longer than men, my wife should have outlived me by 20 years. Sadly, fate had different plans, and I found myself, suddenly and unexpectedly, a widower. Looking back to the days and weeks following Liz’s passing, I don’t know how I survived my shock and overwhelming depression.

With the passage of time, the shock dissipated and, with the help of many friends, especially compassionate female friends, the depression became more manageable. It was time to embark on something I thought I would never again experience — a re-entry into the dating scene, which I christened “My Unwanted Adventure.”

Finding intellectual, emotional and physical compatibility in a new mate after so many years appeared to be an incredibly daunting task. Even though I’ve worked for what seems like forever to stay in good shape, what would it be like to take off my clothes for the first time with another 60- to 70-year-old? Yikes!

Although I prefer the old-fashioned ways to meet other singles, most of my dates during My Unwanted Adventure have been via the internet, which begs for answers to the following: How do I construct an appealing profile? How do I send out appealing messages to desirable women? For the former, I asked some women friends with lots of common sense to vet my profile. For the latter, I tried to devise catchy openings to my messages. I’m not above employing puns: “When I first read your profile, it was love at first site.” 

The internet social scene is full of surprises. The women I’ve encountered included one who asked me for thousands of dollars on our third meeting; another who told me how her daughter and son-in-law, acting as sleuths, discovered that two men she dated had criminal records they hadn’t divulged; and another who, at the age of 61, was contacted and dated by men in their 30s.

Adding to the continuing adventure, many untruths find their way into online profiles. Lying about one’s age is probably the most common. But I have encountered other quite frequent but unanticipated untruths. One example is a woman’s marital status. The possibilities include widowed, divorced or never married. Surprisingly, some senior-age women who fall into that last category write “divorced” instead, because they fear — probably correctly — that being “never married” in one’s 60s will scare off many men.   

As a longtime college professor, it is in my DNA to try to help people become smarter, or at least better educated. I have thoughts I hope will be helpful to women seeking dates online.

Arguably the single most important items in a woman’s profile are her pictures — we men are visual beings. Simply transferring 20-25 pictures from Facebook to a dating site is not the way to go. I can guarantee that men are not interested in seeing your dogs, cats, children, other relatives and friends, or your flower arrangements. All that we are interested in is you, preferably both a facial close-up and a full body shot. If you fail to provide the latter, then many men will wonder what you are trying to hide. Also, it is well worth your time, and perhaps money, to have professional-looking photos. Casual, sloppy “selfies” do no good and may well do harm. When I see such photos, I wonder if the person taking them is really serious about finding a partner or is just playing (narcissistic) games.

Many profiles begin with a list of meaningless adjectives (e.g., “My friends tell me I’m attractive, kind, trustworthy, happy …”). It makes no difference what your friends may think of you; all that matters is what your prospective date thinks. Rather than mere adjectives, better that the words in your profile focus on a variety of activities you like to engage in, along with some qualities you are looking for in a mate. Should a physical (sexual) component of a relationship be important to you, words along the lines of “I am affectionate and enjoy physical as well as emotional intimacy, and am looking for a like-minded partner” should get your point across.

Reputedly, there are many more widows than widowers in the U.S., with a similar gender imbalance among divorcees. However, women are typically more skilled at building a support and friendship network then are men, who seem to have more need for traditional, exclusive partnering (count me as one). Although some women bemoan the number imbalance, I think the fact that many more senior women than men prefer to remain single goes a long way toward balancing the playing field. This field is one big game and I do not know where My Unwanted Adventure will take me.

Ben Zuckerman is a UCLA astronomer.

Jewish End of Life Music by Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael


Expired And Inspired

Expired And Inspired

Jewish End of Life Music

In 2001, I had a conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi z”l after my father of blessed memory, Mitchell Robinson z”l left this world. Reb Zalman talked about having a CD of Nichum Aveilim music: songs to comfort the mourner. Although I had been singing and recording for many years, at that time I just wasn’t ready to face a whole recording of an end of life genre of music.

The Process

Several years passed and then other friends, family, and colleagues died. Sometimes their death inspired me to compose a song to honor their passing. On other occasions, a song would come to me based on a traditional teaching that I might use in my pastoral work as a rabbi. Without even realizing it, I was compiling a series of “Jewish songs of comfort”.

I once learned that in an African country when a child is born they bring forth a new song. Looking back now, I see that unfortunately over the years, death has written a number of songs for me as well. Sometimes I look upon death as a mystifying detour taking us places we never imagined we would go. I never really wanted to be called to this work of composing songs for the deathbed and grief. Yet I have to acknowledge the bittersweet edge of creativity, comfort, and memory that my collection of songs have offered me and others.

The Result

          In 2014, after my teacher and mentor Reb Zalman died, I made a commitment to working on a CD of End of Life music called, “May the Angels Carry You – Jewish Songs of Comfort for Death, Dying and Mourning. The title of this CD is the title of a song dedicated to Savina Teuval z’l, a Jewish feminist scholar, as I was privileged to write it after singing at her deathbed.

It is also the title of the book written by my life partner, Dr. Simcha P. Raphael, founding Director of The Daat Institute, for Death, Awareness, Advocacy and Training, which is a short collection of prayers and readings for the deathbed, including the lyrics to the songs on the CD.

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach about this music for a public Jewish death and dying series sponsored by the Daat Institute and The Jewish Relationship Initiative. In teaching my session “Wisdom for the End of Life Journey” I researched other songwriters with a similar type of music that could be used at various stages of the end of life journey: Dying, Death, Taharah, Funeral, Shiva, Shloshim and Yartzeit.

A Resource

I have received many recommendations from my rabbinic colleagues in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, and from Chevrah Kaddisha members. Many composers are listed, as this music spans the Jewish movements.

I am providing a link to the song sheet of the many heartfelt offerings from various Jewish songwriters. The list is not complete, but it’s a start. [Link to download END OF LIFE SONG SHEET] What is not listed are, of course, the various wordless niggunim that can be used at any time.

Life endings are always hard, and may be complicated and tragic, but music is the great soother. May this compilation be an assist for you at this holy time.

[Ed. Note: The list that Rabbi Raphael compiled spanned nine pages – far too long to include here. She has provided a link to download the list as a PDF file. If the link does not work, please email me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, and I will try to forward it to you. — JB]

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G. Rayzel Raphael is a Reconstructionist Rabbi in the Philadelphia area. She has a private practice, performing life cycle rituals as well as other artistic offerings of her soul. For more information see her website: www.shechinah.com

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses. The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PSST; 8 PM EDST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgment. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session, and also receive a message on how to view a recording of each of the sessions.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program.

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you consider a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD:

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings in the Spring on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays – the day of the week will change in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

COURSE PREVIEW

If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the Free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EST (5 PST/6 MST/7 CST/9 AST). The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to info@Jewish-Funerals.org.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

INFORMATION

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Plan ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register now, and reserve your hotel room!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

REGISTRATION

Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study, and more.

DATES

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to the Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

HOTEL

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org.
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

 

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

 

_____________________

 

 

Accepting the end


The hospice patient, an innovative leader in his profession, was in his last moments of life. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his breath began to catch in his throat. His devoted wife was not ready for him to go. She climbed up onto his bed, grabbed him by the lapels of his pajamas and shook him, screaming “No! Do not leave me!”

The patient’s gaze returned, and, as his wife later described it, she could see through his eyes into eternity. They held each other’s gaze for several minutes, and then his eyes closed for good. He was gone.

The wife told this story at the patient’s funeral, feeling that it captured something important about her beloved. She was pleased. But our ancient rabbis and commentators, I thought to myself, would have been shocked. For them, this is not the proper way to treat someone as they die.

Judaism is very clear about the precious, holy time of transitioning from this world into the next. Known in medical circles as “actively dying,” it is characterized by raspy breathing, slowing vital signs, and a lack of interest in food and water. It can last from a few hours to several days. 

Judaism has a name for this important stage of life: goses (rhymes with “no less”). As it says in the Talmud (Shabbat 151b), when someone is a goses, they are like a candle whose flame is flickering — if you reach out to touch it, you may put it out. 

So many people today die in hospital rooms, surrounded by beeping machines, yammering televisions, and teams of medical professionals that flood in to administer electric shocks and break bones. This all flies in the face of what Judaism says God wants us to be doing for the dying patient. 

Of course, there are times when modern medical interventions are appropriate to “save” a patient from death, but suffice it to say there are times when it can do no one any good. It is in the latter situation, when the end of life is nigh, that Jewish teachings want caregivers to adopt a very specific attitude: Keep at the forefront of your mind the idea that any action could either hasten or delay death, so it should not be taken. This is a time for self-restraint. Be tender and quiet, and let the death follow its natural trajectory. Let go, so that the patient can as well. 

The rules of goses, and how I suggest the Jewish families I work with observe them (when they are open to them), are as follows:

• Minimize sound. Turn off machines and televisions. Speak quietly. Play only quiet, gentle music or sing sweetly to the patient.

• Minimize touch. Gentle kisses and strokes are fine, as is dabbing the patient’s mouth with a wet sponge to keep it moist. But do not shake, jab, squeeze or move them. Don’t call 911 and rush them to the emergency room, nor rush them home from the hospital (lest they die in the ambulance). Don’t even change their pillow or their diaper — unless you are confident that it is an impediment to comfort and ease that needs to be removed.

• Do nothing bracing. Do not wipe the patient with a wet washcloth or put an ice cube in their mouth. Do not squeeze or pinch them, such as with a blood pressure cuff or an IV needle. It is clear that they are dying; it is not necessary to track each step of it on a medical chart. Hospice nurses should be amenable once you explain that this is a religious preference. But if the patient is in a hospital, it may take stationing someone in the room to negotiate and actively refuse interruptions to the patient’s peace.

• Speak gently. Offer words of reassurance. Do not order the patient not to die, nor to die today. Tell them everything is fine with you, and that they are safe, and that death will be the right thing for them to do, when they are ready to do it. All is well.

I have known people who held on long after they should have died — for months — even though they were being tortured by their health condition. It seemed they were fulfilling a demand, telegraphed to them by their families, not to leave. It’s just not a fair thing to ask.

Dying is not inconceivable or bizarre. We have made it a taboo in our culture, but dying is just as normal and normative as having sex, giving birth or even going to the bathroom. It is something we need to relax and let our bodies do. We need not fear it. It will come when the time is right, and then it will be up to everyone to face it with respect, and let it unfold with grace.

The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) tells the story of Rabbi Judah, who was dying and in pain, but who was so beloved by the community that the rabbis declared a public fast and offered prayers, day and night, to keep him among the living. His housekeeper saw his suffering, however, and interceded. She threw a jar off the roof, and the praying rabbis paused in unison. In the silence, the rabbi died. 

The story is told in praise of the housekeeper. The commotion and pleading of the rabbis was in its own way torture to Rabbi Judah’s soul. It just needed some peace and quiet so it could move on.

The rabbis of old may have had it easy, believing as they did that even reaching out and closing the eyes of a goses could be punished in the afterlife as murder. Today, it takes real bravery to contain one’s inclination to interfere.

Perhaps remembering the rules of goses, and the needs of the soul to return to That From Which We Came, can help give us this strength.

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (lacommunitychaplaincy.com), and is a provider of creative Jewish after-death ritual (sacred-waters.com). 

Facing mortality at Yom Kippur


Regardless of our race, religion, gender or age, we all have something in common: We’re all going to die.

My friend Eve Elting passed away eight months ago, after she stopped treatment for metastatic breast cancer. At 58, she’d had cancer for 20 years. “I’ve been on 13 different chemotherapy agents,” she told me. “Enough is enough.”

Eve’s decision to die started me thinking about how people view their mortality. What makes us fear death? Why are some people not afraid? What can help us face this natural part of life with more ease?

As an oral historian, I often interview people in the last chapter of their life, either because of age or a terminal illness. I hear stories of their life and experiences, including the impact of family members dying and their own attitude about mortality.

“When I was young I was terrified of dying,” Gladys Sturman, 85, said. “My mother got cancer when she was 50. We were all sitting there crying, and she says, ‘Why are you crying? Kings die. Presidents die. What? Did you think I wasn’t going to die?’ When she said that, it totally lifted my fears.”  

When Dave Schwartz was 100, he said, “There are times when I’m very brave, and I reconcile myself to my demise. I think, it’s a passage; all living things have a beginning and a biological end. I’m looking at things rationally. But there are other times when I have a sense of sadness, a sense of nostalgia, and I have to admit, a sense of fear.”

Discussing end-of-life wishes

Starting in her 70s, my mother, Marcia Goodfriend, was adamant about one thing: “Promise me you won’t let anyone keep me alive with a machine.” She repeated this in letters and on visits and sent my sister and me copies of her Living Will. We knew what Mom wanted before she died, which made our lives easier.

Far too often, these conversations don’t happen. Yes, it’s awkward and it involves admitting that someone is going to die, which is painful. But otherwise, family members are faced with impossible decisions to continue or stop their loved one’s treatment.

“It can be very liberating to have this conversation,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said. He learned he had cancer when he was 39 and, in his 2013 Yom Kippur sermon, he told his congregation, “You need to communicate with your loved ones what you want your final days to be like. What do you need for a reasonable quality of life? When should the fight for your life be carried forward, and what are you willing to endure? And when would it be permitted to say, ‘Enough?’ ” 

Having difficult conversations

“Cancer is an illness of families, and the whole family is suffering terribly,” oncologist Daniel Lieber said. “I think people are afraid the patient won’t be able to handle hearing what their family is feeling and vice versa.  But that is really isolating.”

Lieber’s father, Rabbi David Lieber, died in 2008 from a lung disease. “He faced his mortality with open eyes, which was incredible,” Lieber said. “Many people say, ‘Why me?’ and my father said, ‘Why not me?’ I could say to him, ‘I just can’t believe what it’s going to be like when you’re no longer alive.’ We knew that we could talk to each other that way.”

Renee Marcus’ husband, Richard Marcus, an account manager in the storage and networking computer industry, died from pancreatic cancer at 68. “We talked about everything,” she said, “and that continued during the nine months after his diagnosis.  I thanked him for not dropping dead of a heart attack, so that we had time to talk. I have nothing left that I would have said to him. When I joined a bereavement group, people were envious of me, because they hadn’t talked like that. They thought they’d have the time to do it, but they procrastinated.”

Numerous resources exist to assist people in facing their fears.

Ronnie Kaye, a psychotherapist in West L.A. and herself a cancer survivor, sees many people dealing with mortality. “Each person carries a set of issues related to sickness and mortality,” she said. “No matter what age, I ask, ‘Tell me what scares you?’ It’s opening the dialogue, not knowing where it will lead, but convinced that anything they open up is something we will be able to manage together.”

It’s not unusual for someone facing the end of their life to express anger, Kaye said, and this is especially true with young adults or teenagers. “There is an extra ingredient, because it’s not the right time; there was so much more life to live. In contrast, I often hear from an old person, ‘I’ve had a good life.’ ”

Meditation, or “mindfulness,” is believed to help ease the emotional turmoil of facing illness or mortality. Arash Asher, director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at Cedars-Sinai, agrees. “It really is about being self aware and differentiating what our thoughts and feelings are from reality, and having some sense balance in relation to that.” Finding such resources is one of the services offered by Dikla Benzeevi, a patient navigator in Studio City. “I guide them through the journey,” she said. “What’s the most critical thing to do now? What’s the best way to go about the next steps? What can you learn? Where can you get support? I talk about the best approach and help them find resources.”

Counseling both the dying and their family is something Feinstein does often. “Someone came to me when his father was dying. He expected me to have some sort of prayers or mystical rituals to carry out, and I said, ‘Yes, we have them, but it’s more important that you hold his hand and he hears your voice talking about your children and how he’s affected them.’ What we’re tying to do is to re-humanize death. By recognizing that death is what happens to us all, it gives people the courage to help each other through that.”

What might be needed in a family, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin said, is encouragement to be honest about a loved one’s condition. “If I’m with a family that’s withholding that information, I counsel them to share it. The context of last words to someone who’s dying is acknowledging on both sides that the end is near. It’s essential for your relationship and closure that there is honesty and partnership.”

Doctoring

“Doctors are in the business of healing and tend to focus on that rather than acknowledging the end is near,” Spitz said. “That’s where palliative care doctors will say, ‘Here are your options and you might choose to die with less pain by not having heroic measures.’ ”

Lieber agrees. He presents treatment options – the pros and cons – and talks with patients about whether the treatment is worth it. “People are not looking for just the technical. They want to know that you care and will discuss the options and value judgments with them.”  

Kaye recalled a special example of doctoring.  “I was sitting with a patient in the hospital when Dr. Av Bluming came in. The patient said, ‘Am I dying?’ and he said, ‘Yes, you are. What questions do you have for me about that?’ The only thing she wanted to know was, ‘Will it hurt?’ and he said, ’It’s my job to see that it doesn’t.’”  

A word about hospice, or end-of-life palliative care: My mother spent her last years in a board-and-care home. Twice in her last month, they rushed her to the hospital, which was not what she wanted. I discovered that getting Mom into hospice would allow her to stay in her room at the board and care, which was now her “home.” She died there, with my sister and me telling her we loved her and singing her favorite Broadway melodies. 

Faith, God and Yom Kippur

For some, faith can help lessen the fear of dying, but if one believes a terminal illness is a punishment from God, it can be confusing.

“I don’t think God gives us cancer,” Feinstein said. “The disease is the human condition that we live with. To me, God comes into it when a doctor walks into my room at 5 a.m. to make sure I’m OK, and when we live lives of meaning and take care of each other. My faith, when I was diagnosed, focused on the people around me and reminded me of the many blessings in my life.”

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy suggests that if one is not forgiven by God, he or she might not live another year. This can be frightening for someone with a terminal illness.

“The liturgy comes from a different world,” Feinstein said. “Rabbis have always reinterpreted ancient sources for their contemporary times. I had wrestled with those prayers and, after my diagnosis, I found new meaning in them. I understood why they needed to be reinterpreted when a person is struggling with life and death. The holiday asks you, if you had only 25 hours to live, what would you want to accomplish? What would you want to say?  That’s what Yom Kippur is about.”

Added Spitz, “The wisdom of our tradition is that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of life, and Yom Kippur is the taste of death. The 10 days between the holidays offers a mini life cycle that gives us the perspective from both sides of life … the beginning and the end, leading us to know about the value of our lives.”

Finding meaning

Eve wanted to have a “good death.” She reminisced about her family, her challenges and successes, her friendships and life’s lessons. She expressed gratitude to people she loved, and she forgave both herself and others. She truly modeled finding and creating meaning before dying.

Asher started a program at Cedars-Sinai to increase people’s emotional wellbeing when facing cancer. “Even though one is in this serious situation,” Asher said, “there are still things that they can be grateful for. You can still define your own legacy and find meaning in things that are very important to you. You still have the capacity to love and to laugh.” Asher’s program is called Growing Resiliency and Courage with Cancer, or GRACE.

Benzeevi, the patient navigator, has noticed that a serious diagnosis can inspire positive life changes. “When people receive a metastatic cancer diagnosis, they may experience a major transformation. They let go of toxic relationships and create more nurturing ones. They alter their life style. Their perspective changes; things that used to aggravate them are not as important. Their priorities change. They live life at a more experiential level, with a deeper mindfulness of the moments in their day and week, and of their relationships.”

In February, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote in The New York Times about his terminal diagnosis. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

“I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” 

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of Living Legacies Family Histories, www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, which produces audio and video of oral histories for families and organizations.

Yehuda Avner, Ambassador and Advisor, Dies at 86


Yehuda Avner, a senior advisor and speechwriter to five Israeli prime ministers and an articulate chronicler of the Jewish state’s history, died March 24, 2015 in Jerusalem.

Avner served as advisor to Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as speechwriter to Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, and as Israeli Ambassador to Australia and the United Kingdom. Born in Manchester, England, he settled in Jerusalem in 1956 and joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1958.

Born in Manchester, England, he settled in Jerusalem in 1956 and joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1958. For 25 years, Avner, a Modern Orthodox Jew, was posted to the Prime Minister's office and worked for five Israeli prime ministers in the tumultuous early days of statehood. Avner was standing by as Israel’s leaders took momentous decisions related to military operations and diplomatic negotiations, including Operation Entebbe, Operation Opera and the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.

As a diplomat, Avner served in diplomatic positions at the Israeli Consulate in New York City, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. In 1983, he was appointed Ambassador to Britain and Non-resident Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. He returned to Israel in 1988, before serving as Ambassador to Australia between 1992 and 1995.

In 2010, Avner assembled his notes, correspondence and other materials and used it as the basis of his landmark 702-page memoir, “>Jewish Journal in a 2013 interview. Another hero of Avner’s was Menachem Begin. Often caricatured in the West as an irredentist right-winger, the Begin that emerges in Avner’s anecdotes is a man of supreme erudition and deep concern for all Jews, with a willingness to join forces with his ideological opponents for the good of the country. As for Yitzhak Rabin, Avner recounts several conversations that show what a concentrated and analytic intellect the general brought to bear on existential issues.

When asked how today’s leaders compared to these originals, Avner spoke with blunt insightfulness. “They were made of much flintier rock,” he said. “The circumstances forged them in that furnace of Eastern Europe, with its constant state of social and political turbulence. Also, all of them were literate Jews. They took it for granted they would breed a generation of literate Jews. It didn’t work out that way.”

In The Prime Ministers Avner also reveals a long history of ups and downs in the American-Israel relationship that numerous reviewers couldn't help but notice provided a much-needed sense of perspective in light of current events.  In one notable passage, Avner recalls Rabin's real politik advice to Menachem Begin when handling American politics:

“It is not enough for an Israeli ambassador here to simply say 'I’m pursuing my country’s best interests according to the book,'” Avner recounts Rabin telling an astonished Begin. “'To promote our interests an Israeli ambassador has to take advantage of the rivalries between the Democrats and Republicans. An Israeli ambassador who is either unwilling or unable to maneuver his way through the complex American political landscape to promote Israel’s strategic interests would do well to pack his bags and go home.'”

In 2013 and 2014, Moriah Films, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced The Prime Ministers, a two-part documentary based on Avner's book. It is narrated by Avner in his brisk and engaging English accent, with stars Christoph Waltz, Sandra Bullock, Michael Douglas, and Leonard Nimoy as the voices of Israel's Prime Ministers.

In a lecture sponsored by