Book Review: Jewish End-of-Life Care in a Virtual Age: Our Tradition Reimagined

The pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, even the way we become ill and the way we die.

We used to lie in the hospital surrounded by our family and friends. Now no one is allowed to be with us for fear of contagion. We used to be buried in a ceremony in which our friends participated in the shoveling and in which they lined up in two rows and gave us some comfort as they passed. Now only a few people are allowed to attend a burial service, and the rest of us see it on Zoom.

It is for this reason that I recommend Jewish End-of-life Care in a Virtual Age: Our Tradition Reimagined (Albion-Andalus, Boulder, CO), not only for counselors and pastors but for all of us. These three editors have taken up the challenge of how to care for one another in a time when we must somehow walk a thin line between caring for the ill as we have always done and obeying the new laws that forbid us to have close contact with people in hospitals and nursing homes.

Why did many people chose to enter care homes before the pandemic? They wanted to be part of a community. If you wanted a minyanminyanמִנְיָןQuorum of 10 people necessary for public prayer in traditional communities; plural: minyanim. , you had one readily available. If you wanted someone to sit with, you had your choice among the other residents. If you wanted to paint or go for a walk or study a certain subject, there were people around you with whom you could share the experience.

But not anymore.

Now you must eat alone. Food is delivered to your door by a staff member who runs away before you can even say a word of greeting. Now if you want to study something or to talk to someone, you must do it on Zoom or by phone. And so the residents of our nursing homes feel lonely and isolated, cut off from any contact with the world outside or even from those who live within the same building.

COVID-19 has made interactive Judaism almost impossible. No one can parade around the room with the Torah or lift it or tie it or read from it, and no one can get the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing any of these things in a group setting.

Chaplains report that some things can still be done; they just require a lot more creativity and work. You can take the residents into your home via Zoom and encourage them to sing with your children; you can take them on a tour of the home’s kitchen and show them how the Sabbath meal is made; and most importantly, you can interview them on Zoom to ask them to share their favorite Shabbat memories.  

Now, counselors have to think of themselves as writers, producers, stage managers, and actors, if they are to make Jewish experiences come alive to people who can only watch them on screen. You can bring them Barbra Streisand to be their cantor and to sing Avinu MalkeinuAvinu Malkeinuאָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ "Our Father, Our King"/"Our Parent, Our Ruler" A prayer (and song) chanted during the High Holiday period. Describes two simultaneous ways in which people might relate to God: the intimate relationship of a parent and the powerful awe of a ruler. for them. You can invite them to teach their favorite melodies or to blow shofar for the congregation via Zoom.

Doing any of this in no way cheapens Judaism; it only makes it meaningful for those whose attention span may be limited but whose spiritual needs are very real. Even if you are allowed to enter a patient’s room, a mask and gloves and a face shield make you seem distant to them and they to you. But patients can still hear you even when they can barely see you, and a smile in your eyes can be discerned even if your nose and mouth are covered.

This book contains a very helpful essay that points out how the KaddishKaddishקַדִּישׁAn Aramaic prayer recited in several iterations during a worship service. One iteration is Kaddish Yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish), which is recited by mourners (immediate family members) during the mourning period immediately following death, and on the yahrzeit (anniversary of a death). , yizkorYizkorיִזְכֹּר"Remember;" memorial service held on Yom Kippur and on the last day of Pesach, Shavout, and Sukkot. , and viduiViduiוִדּוּי"Confession;" liturgical prayer recited throughout Yom Kippur; confessional said before death. prayers were once responses to new challenges and new situations; therefore, we should not feel that it is wrong to invent new ways of worship to meet the challenges of this time.

My parents would have said of a book like this, “Mir zol es nisht darfen,” we should not need to have it – but we live at a time when we do need it, and so we should be grateful that these writers who have provided us with guidanceon how to help a person recite the vidui in these circumstances; new prayers that can be said from outside a room for those who are not permitted to go inside; how to help a person give thanks when he emerges from the hospital; and many other resources that we never imagined we would need.

I suggest that you keep this book on your shelf so that you will have it handy if you ever need it.