Melanie Levav
Founding executive director, Shomer Collective

Pride in Planning Ahead: A Personal Reflection


I was 26 when I made my first advance care plan. It was 2000, and my now-wife and I were preparing for our wedding. Our wedding had no legal recognition, as same-sex marriage would not receive federal recognition for another 15 years after we stood under the chuppah in New York City. As part of the pre-marital counseling process, our rabbi required that same-sex couples complete a list of legal documents in order to protect the relationship in as many ways as possible, absent the legal protections of marriage. We met with a lawyer, assigned healthcare proxies, decided about organ donation, and signed our wills.

A few years later, after the birth of our first child, we revisited these documents with our attorney, updating them and adding plans should we both die before our child was able to care for himself. And again a few years after that, we revised our plans after the birth of our second child. Our eldest is now 18, and I’ve scheduled time for us to update our documents yet again. The fact that our marriage is now legal in the US (we obtained a legal marriage certificate in 2005 when same-sex marriage was recognized in Massachusetts) does not change the fact that declaring our advance care wishes is something we first did because we did not have the same rights and protections as others in this country.

The lessons I learned as part of the LGBTQ community helped propel my commitment to advance care planning. Painful memories of the AIDS epidemic underscore continuing inequities in this country, access to healthcare in particular. Appointing a healthcare proxy, documenting wishes in a living will, and communicating those wishes are vital for everyone, regardless of privilege or status.

Contemplating our mortality doesn’t always come easily. But doing the work of recognizing that tomorrow is never guaranteed, and doing so regularly, can offer us varying degrees of protection. Advance care planning can provide legal protection, as well as emotional protection – the emotional protection that comes with the peace of mind knowing we have done the work of clarifying our wishes and communicating them to those who need to know.

Jewish tradition offers us no shortage of opportunities to be reminded of our mortality. Each day, the opening words of the morning liturgy, “modeh ani,” – I am grateful, remind us that waking up today was not a guarantee. Each night, the closing words of the evening liturgy, the bedtime Shema, remind us that we place our faith in God, with the hope that we will wake up tomorrow. The annual cycles of remembrance through yahrzeit and yizkor serve as yet another regular reminder of mortality, marking the anniversary of a death and opportunities to remember in community.

Rabbi Eliezer taught in the Talmud, “repent one day before your death,” acknowledging that our time is finite. He knew that the reminder of our mortality might help us focus on what matters most.

Looking back on my own experiences with advance care planning, I am grateful that I had a rabbi set me on a path that required me to clarify and communicate my wishes in the service of protecting my relationship years before we could access equal protection under the law. Without the instructions of a wise rabbi, I never would have thought about it at such an early age. And without my own experience with advance care planning, I probably wouldn’t be focused on bringing this work to Jewish communities, as I am now doing through What Matters and Shomer Collective. What will it take for this sacred work of contemplating our mortality to become commonplace in our Jewish communities? I look forward to finding out.

About the Author
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding Executive Director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan. Melanie is a board-certified chaplain, a licensed social worker, and a rabbi with more than two decades of leadership experience in the American Jewish community.
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