Judaism doesn’t skirt around difficult topics like death and dying, and neither does Congregation Rodef Sholom of San Rafael.
With a simple click, Rodef Sholom members and others can now access “A Jewish Guide to End-of-Life: Sacred Choices and Rituals” — a free, 16-page handbook packed with explanations of Jewish customs related to death and dying and information on the conversations a family should have before the passing of a loved one.
“We are here to support your journey with spirituality, to be present with your pain and to encourage you to engage in healing rituals to comfort you during the physical act of dying,” the introduction reads. “We hope to help you create a setting where death is experienced with honor, respect and sacredness.”
The project was spearheaded by Rabbi Michael Lezak, who also began the community’s chevra kadisha, or burial society, several years ago.
The handbook was made available to congregants on July 8, but it has been at least two years in the making. To view or download it, visit www.tinyurl.com/rodef-sholom-guide.
Rodef Sholom’s document is intended to meet the needs of its congregational family and includes a planning checklist, Reform Jewish perspectives on cremation and organ donation, and detailed explanations of traditional Jewish burial rituals like shmirah (guarding the body) and taharah (cleansing the body), funerary customs and mourning customs. The guide encourages people to think about which Jewish rituals they want performed, if any, and to share those decisions with their families.
Multiple congregations produce similar documents, each, like this one, tailored to its particular community.
In addition, earlier this year San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel, Northern California’s sole Jewish funeral home, launched its new website to provide a comprehensive guide to Jewish funerals and mourning rituals for all denominations (www.sinaichapel.org), and published “Nihum Aveilim: A guide for the comforter,” a booklet providing much of the same information as in Rodef Sholom’s guide.
“People always ask, ‘Would my mom have wanted X or Y?’ We wanted to create a resource for people to have those conversations now, rather than trying to figure out what they would’ve wanted when the person dies,” said Susan Barnes, former president of Rodef Sholom who has been involved in the synagogue’s chevra kadisha since its inception.
Barnes acknowledges that death is an uncomfortable subject in American society. “I used to be one of those people who was completely afraid of anything to do with death and dying,” Barnes said. “When people died in my family, we didn’t talk about it.”
She hopes the guide will promote open discussion in the community.
“We’re really trying to be more proactive about educating people about death and dying and trying to normalize it,” Barnes said.