Another interfaith quandary to share! I am the daughter of an interfaith couple who are uncomfortable with my decision to be a Jewish adult. When completing an advance health care directive kit, I could think of no one, besides my husband, I would want to designate as an agent to make health care decisions for me in case I was incapacitated. My closest extended family members in California were raised Catholic and might not feel comfortable “pulling the plug,” or carrying out my wish for a “green” burial. My estate-planning attorney recommended that I put down my rabbi, so I did, at least temporarily. How do people like me — someone whose relatives were either raised Catholic, live too far away, are estranged or would get too emotional to follow my wishes — find a person who can comfortably follow my advance health care wishes? — Facing reality
Dear Facing: End-of-life issues can be quite difficult in an interfaith family, since death is a punch to the gut and religion’s strongest bonds are the rituals we perform around death, mourning and burial. A rabbi once told me that people may want to write their own vows, the words for a baby welcoming or a prayer for coming of age, but when faced with death, people fall back on the familiar, the practices that have been put in place and can be followed without further thought.
Should you need a responsible person to perform your advance health care directives, you are wise to chose someone in addition to your husband. He may predecease you or you may die together. (A morbid thought, but one to be faced, especially if you have children.)
I suggest you find a friend, a Jewish friend who understands you and your desires, and knows the ins and outs of Jewish rituals and traditions. Depending on your personal views and level of observance, you may want to assure that you are never put on life-perpetuating machines. Or you may want, as you say, for someone to “pull the plug.” You’ll need a friend who is comfortable with that emotionally and spiritually. (Removing life-sustaining/perpetuating medical equipment is not halachically permitted in some situations.)
You should go over your desires in detail with the friend you choose and with your family. Your children and spouse must be comfortable and trust this friend who has great power over their loved one — you.
One of the advantages to a friend is that they are likely to feel more able to do what you ask. Additionally, this frees your immediate family to focus on you.
Thank goodness you have a rabbi and a community to whom you can turn. I suggest you meet with your rabbi and go over what you want. He or she needs to know that you’ve put them on your form. Discuss with him or her the religious traditions that are involved in a situation in which a person is no longer able to act on their own behalf, as well as the Jewish laws surrounding illness and death. Once you know what the tradition says, you’ll be prepared to decide how you want to utilize tradition to support your loved ones at a dark time.
You might already know that there is a green Jewish cemetery, Gan Yarok in Mill Valley. Contact them at (415) 383-7100. It is common to purchase a burial plot while you are still young and healthy. You may want to do so. The more you have in place, the less your loved ones will be stressed at the time of your death.
For the present, you have designated your rabbi. By meeting with your rabbi and going over all the issues that may arise, when you switch the responsibility to a friend you’ll be ready to give him or her a clear outline of what you want and to answer any questions about your wishes.
By the way, you are not the only person who has designated their rabbi for this role. I have known others who did so until they had formed intimate friendships with people who could fulfill that request.