From Friday, September 17, through Sunday, September 19, last year, my 93-year-old mother, Ruth Leavitt Kadish, was dying at Bruns House in Alamo, an inpatient Hospice. At my request on Saturday, the social worker made some phone calls to help me locate a Rabbi or other Jewish spiritual leader to be with us while we held vigil. I’d given him a few phone numbers for him to try, one of which was Chabad.
I realized it would be challenging to find someone who could make a visit, since none of us belongs to a synagogue and it was Yom Kippur.
On Sunday morning, they told us that our mother probably wouldn’t last the day; since 4am, her breathing was 6 breaths per minute. By evening, they had increased to 16 per minute. At around 8pm Sunday evening, one of the nurses told us that a rabbi from Chabad would be there between 8:30-8:45. My sister read aloud from the [amazon_link id=”B003F76H8Y” target=”_blank” ]The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying[/amazon_link], a beautiful piece about sending the person off with love and releasing them, then we chanted the Hindu prayer, Loka Samasta Sukino Bhavantu. While she continued that, I kept repeating the Sh’ma, wanting those to be the last words she heard.
Suddenly, my mother exhaled, and stopped breathing. We stood up. She took two more breaths and stopped again; I could see that her carotid artery had slowed way down. My sister got the nurse; he came in and said, “She’s almost gone”. We held her hands, and said “I love you, Mama”. Then she took her final breath at 8:40pm, death-rattle and all. We held each other and cried.
At 8:45pm, the rabbis arrived—big-brimmed black hats, full beards, large men. (One whose name I never learned, since he did not introduce himself and he wouldn’t answer me or shake my hand when I introduced myself and asked him his name; I am a woman, after all). Now, even considering that my sister and I were still in shock from having just watched our mother die, I was totally unprepared for them. Evidently I was woefully uninformed about Chabad; I was also naïve in thinking that any Rabbi would be sensitive and supportive in such a situation. Maybe I’d been spoiled by the warm, welcoming rabbis and teachers I’ve encountered in the Renewal communities.
Rabbi The First sang a prayer/song, which was nice.
But then I asked him if he would say Kaddish with us.
He refused, saying we should wait for the minyan.
I’m thinking, “Dude. There ain’t gonna be no stinkin’ minyan.”
I took a breath, and said that there wouldn’t be a minyan, that she didn’t want any services, she didn’t belong to any congregation, she wanted to be cremated. I added that I attend services and events at Chochmat HaLev and Kehilla Synagogue and just wanted some kind of spiritual support now.
So instead of joining us, he just stood there reading while my sister and I read the transliteration version of the Kaddish I’d been using. Couldn’t even throw us a bone.
He tried talking us out of having her cremated. Remarkably keeping my cool, I said that she had belonged to the Neptune Society for decades, that it’s in her will and we knew that’s what she’d always wanted.
Then he said, and I quote: “Maybe she’ll come to you in a dream tonight and tell you she changed her mind” and proceeded to describe the lovely Jewish cemetery right down the street from Chabad.
Seriously! Could he have been any more ethically or morally inappropriate and inadequate, trying to put doubt in our minds that we were making a mistake by fulfilling what we knew to be her wishes?!
The irony here is deep. Our mother’s last name—my father’s name—is Kadish, a direct derivation of “Kaddish.” Sanctification, indeed. And the moral of the story is: don’t assume a rabbi, or any Jewish person for that matter, will be a mensch when you need them to be.