By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO
“Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile…Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death.” – Zelda
Michael* died at the end of December 2022. For 20 years, he was a client in our Supportive Living Services (SLS) program. When he died, he had no family or community outside of JFS. Unlike far too many in our society, he was not alone.
As a rabbi, I offered to help with the funeral. For Jews, accompanying the dead is the highest commandment – and it is a commandment. It felt wrong to bury Michael by myself, so I reached out to a diverse group of community members, hoping I could get a minyan (a group of ten people) to walk him on his final journey.
Virtually everyone I reached out to rearranged their schedules on a cold Monday afternoon to attend a funeral for a total stranger. It was a profound testament to the power and strength of our JFS community. One person adjusted her clinic hours to bring her elderly father and two young sons to the funeral. As Jewish tradition guides us, “We will do and we will understand.”
Another person, who has a young son with disabilities, shared with me afterward, “The notion of us needing love and community, as a basic need, is the single most important concern I have for my son. (The funeral) quickly became personal for me.” He continued, “We became Michael’s family and community for those 45 minutes. It was the ultimate expression of providing love and respect to someone in need.”
Following the tradition, at the end of the funeral, I asked those attending to form two lines facing each other. Normally the family would walk down the middle and receive words of condolences. The space was empty. There was nobody to receive our condolences. Social isolation is an epidemic plaguing our community. It is a disease that goes unnoticed. And the cure is in each of our hands. We can strengthen our community and make our lives more meaningful by choosing to prioritize these small acts – by dignifying each other’s lives, no matter how different that life might look from our own.
Dignity is a core principle for our SLS team. As Rosemary D’Agrosa, the director of the program shared, “As a team, we talk a lot about the dignity of choice and the dignity of elevating the capabilities of people.”
Treating people with dignity is different than treating people with compassion. Focusing on dignity shifts the center away from the self and toward the person being served. It acknowledges they are the experts in their lives and gives them the autonomy to make their own choices…even if those choices are different from the ones we might make.
There is a fine line between ‘caregiving’ and ‘caretaking.’ The balance we strive for at JFS is to keep people safe while also giving them autonomy over their lives. However, this is true whether it is a client at JFS, our elderly parents, or even our children. Sometimes the issue is our own fears, anxieties, and expectations–not theirs.
What if we were to learn to follow instead of feeling the need to lead or try to cast people in the image we have for them instead of the image they have for themselves? Or if not follow, walk alongside. It is this awareness and desire to continue to evolve and be curious that makes our Supportive Living Services team so special.
Kris Morse, a manager in SLS, said it best, “I have so many areas where I am still growing and learning. Clients that I have worked with since 1998 are still teaching me about how they live their lives. What I have learned is to be more humble. To listen more and to follow their lead. Living by this approach helps us grow not just as professionals, but as humans.” It is something we all need to continually work on.
Many of the people we serve at JFS have serious vulnerabilities, and one of the primary ways that manifests is through isolation and remaining hidden from the broader community. Our work is to help them to be and feel seen and heard.
We make a commitment to our Supportive Living Services’ clients for life and even in their death. We call them by their names. We see them in their fullness, their complexity, and their humanity. Our relationships with our clients in this program can, and often does, span decades. It is this dedication to long-term sustained relationships that makes JFS unique.
We mourn when a person with whom we work dies, not only because we deeply cared for them or because we may be the only people mourning. But also because we may be the only people who had the privilege to see every aspect of their lives. As Rosemary shared, “We get to see them working, having talents, hobbies, and personal strengths. We get to see them as full human beings. Not just as a diagnosis or as their mental health or developmental disability.”
How different our world would be if we learned to see all people in our fullness – our full humanity. If we learned to see each other by the names we call ourselves and the lives we lead and the dreams we leave behind. This is what Michael—and all people who come to JFS—deserve. In the end, isn’t what we all deserve?
“Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile…Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death.”
May Michael’s memory be a blessing.
*Name changed for confidentiality
A reading of this message is available here.
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