April 10, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I really felt like I knew Jake, even though he never spoke one word to me. He was a loving father, energetic grandfather, devoted husband of over 40 years and a brilliant trial attorney. He enjoyed traveling the world and entertaining. Jake was a hard-working, caring and giving person.

Much of what I knew about Jake was from his wife, Sue. Our intense and very special relationship began on the hospice floor of the hospital. Though Jake was Jewish, his Sue related in our initial visit that she was Catholic. My colleague Father Tim and I were both present to emotionally and spiritually support Jake, Sue and the wonderful family. Both Father Tim and I established a strong bond with Sue in particular, as she was the one who was a constant fixture by the bedside of her non-communicative, dying husband. Sue would often reflect on their marriage and constantly expressed her appreciation to God for the time that she had with Jake, as he had been ill for many years. She truly felt that each day that she had with her husband (especially during the last two years) was a gift from God and she never took that for granted.

On one of my later visits, I said the “Vidui” prayer (Jewish prayer for the dying) in both Hebrew and English alongside a teary wife and weeping children. After three weeks of being on the hospice inpatient floor, where the most compassionate team of professionals were all present for Jake and his family, Jake passed away peacefully with his wife by his side. Though I was not working in the hospital on that day, Father Tim, who was present, continued his support for the family until the moment they left.

A week after Jake’s passing, Sue invited Father Tim and me to attend a special gathering that was termed a “celebration” of Jake’s life. Hundreds of people attended. There was a beautiful orchestra playing serene music, much food and socializing, a running montage of Jake with his friends and family and, of course, many speeches. Though I did not stay long, my presence was noticed amidst the huge crowd and it was ever so appreciated by Sue and the family.

My relationship with Sue continued. Every several weeks, I was in contact with Sue, mostly via email, to inquire about her well-being. Sue had close family and friend support which was extremely helpful.

Almost a year went by. I had not corresponded with Sue in about two months. One day, my phone rang and the voice sounded familiar. It was Sue.

After a few seconds of exchanging pleasantries, Sue began—“Debby, meeting you on the hospice floor of the hospital a year ago was such a blessing. Our family never met an Orthodox Jewish woman, let alone a Jewish chaplain. I will always remember what you did for me and my family at a time when we needed someone. When Jake passed away, almost a year ago, you were not in the hospital that day. Father Tim was. We called him and he said some prayers at the bedside. We were all so grateful that he was present. I know that you had said the special prayer for the dying with Jake, but we never got a chance to say any Jewish prayers after he had passed away, while Father Tim did. So now, I have a favor to ask you.”

She paused. I was wondering what favor she could be asking me for? Could it be to go to Jake’s grave and recite prayers at the graveside? To speak at a memorial service?

“I was wondering if it is possible for me to come into the hospital this week and perhaps you could say a few prayers…? Over Jake’s ashes.”

My heart dropped. How did I not know that Jake was being cremated? Cremation severs the connection between the body and the soul forever and is considered one of the most serious violations of Jewish law. Though it is not my role to dissuade anyone from cremation, as the Jewish chaplain, I often do explore burial as the preferred Jewish option if and when the timing is appropriate.

After the initial shock and with various thoughts and feelings running through my head and heart, I knew I had to reply quickly and with utmost sensitivity.

“Sue, I am honored that you asked me to do this. It is so impressive and wonderful that you are remembering Jake’s Jewish faith right now. Cremation though, is a serious departure from Jewish tradition; therefore, I do not think that there are any formal prayers to recite, but I am unsure. Perhaps I can recite some Psalms. As you know, I am Orthodox and I act in strict accordance with Jewish law. When I have questions on which I need some guidance, I ask rabbinic authorities. I will reach out to them and get back to you by the end of the week.” Sue thanked me and told me she would be awaiting my response; reiterating again, how eager she was to have prayers said, which would give her more closure.

After presenting this situation to expert rabbinic authorities, although noting that the cremation was already performed, the conclusion in this case was that reciting of any sort of prayers in the presence of Jake’s ashes was absolutely not allowed. An alternative message to be conveyed to Sue is that in Judaism we stress the importance of the “Yahrtzeit” or year anniversary of the death. Perhaps in our synagogue we could obtain Jake’s Hebrew name and say a special prayer for Jake on the Hebrew date of his death.

Though I gained more clarity on the response, I continued to feel unsettled and nervous. Will Sue be angry with me? Will she judge me and/or all Orthodox Jews as “inflexible”? Will she try to challenge me or try to convince me? Will our relationship be over? How would I respond if any of those situations were to occur? I prayed to God to help put the right words in my mouth before I lifted the phone. With a beating heart, I dialed Sue’s number. Choosing my words carefully, I explained what I could not do, but focused on what I could do. I even extended the offer that if she would like, the rabbi in my Congregation could say the special prayer every year on the anniversary of Jake’s death.

Silence.

After what seemed like an eternity, Sue responded, with the deepest sincerity in her voice— ”Debby, that is the absolute kindest thing anyone has ever offered me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. What is the name of your congregation so that I could write out a donation check?”

We just never know how things will turn out…

A mentor of mine once taught me to use each challenging case I have as a learning opportunity. On a personal and professional level, I learned so very much from this case.

Did you?

Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected].

 

 

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