Time and space for end-of-life conversations

I sat in front of the bimah at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, faced the congregation, and talked about death.

It was the afternoon of Yom Kippur, a day when the reality of end of life is somewhat center. We recite Yizkor for those we’ve lost, and aspire to be sealed in the Book of Life.

On one hand, it was a perfect opening and opportunity to talk about death and break through the human inclination to generally and altogether avoid the topic.

On the other, it’s a conversation that shouldn’t generate solely from the ritual of a certain holiday, or the fact of a Shiva visit, or the sudden illness of a family member or friend, or any other specific, defined moment.

There must be more fluidity. There must be more exposure. There must be more space.

As the public face of a non-profit Jewish funeral chapel — one of just a handful in the country — I work every day with great intention to reach these objectives in the Jewish community and beyond.

In this respect, Plaza Jewish Community Chapel (PJCC) is similar to any other Jewish non-profit organization with a mission to fill voids, generate positive change with innovative approaches, and enhance the welfare of individuals and communities.

But there is a proactivity that is required here. Elevating conversations about end-of life and changing the landscape to accommodate them is a challenge not unlike any other societal imbalance that is exposed, addressed and corrected by dedicated advocates.

Case in point. This month marks the six-month anniversary of the launch of Exit Strategy, PJCC’s podcast series created as a channel for public conversations along the entire spectrum of end of life issues — from dying with dignity and grieving after a suicide, to talking to our children after public tragedies, choosing palliative care as a life choice, and pre-planning funerals.

As I examine the metrics of Exit Strategy, I see the hunger for such conversations in the growing numbers of listeners and their geographic spread. I see the topics that resonate more than others. I see episodes being shared across social media channels.

And perhaps most importantly, I see that by creating conversations about end of life — whether in person in a sanctuary, or through the power of new media, and in any place or in any manner in between — that people will break through the reticence, overcome the fear, talk and recognize not only the imperative of such topics, but their normality as well.

I recently recorded a podcast episode with my friend Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He is an outspoken advocate for exactly that — the normalization of conversations about death in our communal environments and in our greater society — and he’s written numerous books touching on its various aspects.

I recall one quote of his during this interview: “Every brush with death is a brush with life, our lives. That’s the power of it … it is the great teacher.”

I agree. If our community continues to make room for and support end-of-life conversations, we will be acting in a life-affirming way that is at one with our obligations to each other, and to ourselves.

About the Author
Stephanie Garry is Executive VP of Communal Partnerships at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York City, a non-profit institution founded by Jewish philanthropists and organizations. She is on the board of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and The Hadassah Foundation, and the lay advisory board of The New York Board of Rabbis. Stephanie is not a licensed funeral director, but uses her position, as well as her deep involvement as a Jewish lay leader, to write and speak about end-of-life issues and their place in the Jewish community. She hosts a monthly podcast, Exit Strategy, available on all major podcast platforms.
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