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Dealing with death in Judaism

Rabbi Melanie Levav, executive director of Shomer Collective, and Scott Arogeti, co-founder and CEO of Mi Alma, join the podcast for a discussion on grief in the Jewish community and approaching end-of-life preparations

Rabbi Melanie Levav, executive director of Shomer Collective (left) and Scott Arogeti, co-founder and CEO of Mi Alma

Jewish tradition teaches about honoring a life lost and showing support to grieving loved ones. But even within a society that details how to best care for the dead and dying, dealing with end-of-life issues is still a challenge for many.

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Rabbi Melanie Levav, executive director of Shomer Collective, and Scott Arogeti, co-founder and CEO of Mi Alma, for a discussion on grief in the Jewish community and approaching end-of-life preparations.

Below are excerpts of the conversation.

Rabbi Melanie Levav: Shomer Collective is a startup nonprofit — we’re being incubated by the good folks at the Natan Fund — and we emerged after a group of friends started sharing their experiences about the death of a loved one, and recognized that there were things about those experiences that we wish could have been different. I had this in my own life with the death of my mother-in-law, and really learned only at [her] bedside about things like hospice and chaplaincy support. And in my work in the Jewish community, over the last two dozen plus years, I saw too many families wind up in crisis, because of our inability to talk about death and dying. We’re scared that it might hasten the arrival of the Angel of Death, that’s one of our superstitions, and we don’t know where to go, who to call, what to do. And we realized that there could be a lot to do, further upstream, to help people avoid ending up in this crisis. So our work at Shomer Collective is to help improve end-of-life care and conversations inspired by Jewish wisdom, and we do that by helping people to talk more openly, more frequently, with less fear about death and dying, and to do that grounded in so much Jewish wisdom that we’ve kind of pushed out of our view over the last 100 years or so.

Scott Arogeti: So, Mi Alma, which is Spanish for “my soul” — it’s really more Ladina, but we’ll call it Spanish — is a startup that my wife and I have co-founded, and the goal of Mi Alma is to be the place to support grievers. So what we do, our belief is that there is room and there is a need for a tool, a modern piece of technology, that empowers supporters with the knowledge and resources that they need to direct their compassion in meaningful ways. You think of the composition of a standard funeral: You’ve got a clergy that is officiating, you’ve got members of the family up close, but the largest group by far are the supporters. So we really exist to bridge the disconnect between the supporters and the grievers. So similar to what the rabbi was saying a few minutes ago, grief can be a very isolating thing, which is all the more, in some ways, kind of tragic, given that there are so many supporters around that want to help, that want to take action, whether that action is making a donation either to the family to help reimburse with medical expenses, or funeral expenses, or for kids education, or for shiva meals, whatever it is, or to sponsor a meal itself for the family, or help [by] volunteering time and energy. But often there’s this kind of awkwardness, there’s this fog of confusion that can sit in. So we want to kind of normalize that. So, similar to how our society is very comfortable using the idea of a registry for happy life cycle events — someone has a new baby, there’s a wedding, you know where to go, you know how to help. But when someone loses someone close to them, it’s kind of chaos. So we want to help fill that void by making it easier for the supporters to take action, show [compassion] for their loved ones, for their friends that are either about to or have lost a loved one, and that’s what Mi Alma is all about.

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Rich Goldberg: Rabbi, if you could talk to us about what you sort of found missing in more detail in the Jewish community as far as how we are dealing with end-of-life issues as a community, and what it is that you set out to really fill in that space.

Levav: We saw too many people in a place where they didn’t know what to expect, who to call, where to find help, especially Jewishly inflected help. The majority of American Jews are not affiliated with synagogues any longer. And even in the cases, for those of us who are affiliated, we may not have a kind of relationship with a clergy person, or it may not occur to us to give them a call when we’re in this place where mom’s gotten a diagnosis and we don’t know what to do, we don’t know what to expect, or the doctor says mom has days left, and we don’t know what to ask and what to think about. And so our work recognizes that if we have these conversations, while we’re well, about the reality that we are all mortal, we will be in a better position when we get that call from mom saying, ‘I have the diagnosis and the doctor says I have this much time left.’ When we do the work of advanced-care planning, of designating a healthcare proxy, of expressing our wishes in the form of a living will, of normalizing the conversations about death and dying at every age and stage of life, including children, where children are aware of the reality of life and death and don’t push them out of the room when we’re talking about things, but they grow up in a society, in a community where this is normalized. It’s in an engaged community, it’s bringing the kids to make a shiva call. It’s not leaving them home with a babysitter, but helping them to see this is what we do, we go to provide comfort for the mourner, we maybe bring some food with us, maybe we’re going to make a donation in memory of the person who died, right, it’s involving people in the process, from the earliest stages, so that when we, who are in middle age, get to this place where our parents are on the decline, we’ve already had the conversations with them when they were well of, ‘Mom, Dad, what do you want,’ and then we’re also doing the work for ourselves of what we want when our time comes. The burden that’s left on people at the time of death can be reduced if we’ve done the planning. There’s no reason not to identify where we want to be buried, which funeral home we’re going to use. Some people maybe even engage in funeral pre-planning to take those decisions off of the shoulders of the people who will be left behind in their acute moment of grief. 

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Jarrod Bernstein: So we’ve had a couple of lighthearted moments on this pod, so is it OK to laugh at some of these things? Is it OK to laugh at some of these things even if it’s, like, really kind of morose and ultimately sad?

Arogeti: We talk a lot about change in this conversation, where it doesn’t have to all be sad and somber. I mean, yes, obviously, parts of it are incredibly sad and certain circumstances are far more tragic and traumatic than others, even though it’s all very sad in some ways, but, we try to find beauty in the support, and death and grief and dying, it’s part of life. So, it’s not something to maybe celebrate, but you shouldn’t shy away from it, because supporting a friend that is going through this I think is beautiful, and I think there’s very wonderful Jewish concepts of comedy or laughing, whether it’s something that is lighthearted, whether it’s with someone that is going through this and  the person themselves before they pass. If they’re in that headspace, I think it can be beautiful.

Levav: There was an article in The New York Times recently about a trend in stand-up comedy of people doing shows about death. And I think there’s something to be said for that, where we are as a society and how we can bring back important topics that we’re messing things up, we’re not figuring out how to do it. So if that works for some families, I say go for it.

Arogeti: And one more thing to add,  a lot of the experts that we’ve talked to out of the therapists and counselors, what we’ve heard time and time again, is that one of the best ways to support someone that has gone through loss is to talk to them about the person they lost. Because there’s an awkwardness for a lot of people who feel, where you may have a friend that lost a parent six months ago and you’re around them, and now you feel it’s almost like your friendship is different, because you don’t know what to say, and it’s like, they’re thinking about it, they didn’t forget, they’re aware, say their name, tell them a story about the person, like acknowledge and ask how they’re doing. So, not to kind of shy away from those moments, but to actually come and lean in a little bit more, because it can be healing for them and it can remove a little bit of awkwardness, and frankly make a better connection between you and them, in this context, so yeah, if laughter is kind of their support language, then, yeah, all for it.

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