Newsletter   /   May 2024
Exploring End-of-Life Practices Among Jews of Color: Insights from erica riddick’s Study

The experiences and perspectives of Jews of Color, especially surrounding Jewish tradition and religious practices, form a rich, varied tapestry that tend to be underrepresented in Jewish spaces. This is particularly resonant when it comes to how JoC engage with Jewish end-of-life practices: there is limited data and few resources specifically compiled with JoC perspectives and experiences in mind. erica riddick [1], a Jewish educator who founded the Jews of Color Sanctuary, responded to this gap by undertaking a major community research study. She conducted an in-depth survey of 45 Jews of Color, as well as interviews with 11 of those survey respondents. 

In addition to identifying as a Jew of Color herself, riddick has a personal investment in establishing greater understanding around end-of-life experiences and practices. She lost her father at a young age, and has “been paying attention to how we are around death for a really long time,” she said. 

The research focused on four areas: rituals and practices; grief and mourning; resources and education; and end-of-life planning. In order to complement the rich qualitative data gathered from survey respondents, riddick joined forces with Dr. Gage Gorsky, a researcher and data analyst who contributed to JoCI’s survey Beyond the Count, to gather and interpret quantitative data about the study’s participants, such as where respondents live, their age, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds, among other demographics. Combined with riddick’s qualitative interviews data, the study provides rich insights into the barriers and challenges that often accompany JoC access to end-of-life care and community. 

By assessing barriers to end-of-life care, riddick’s study is geared towards the creation of resources for JoC that can help them navigate end-of-life processes, rituals, and mourning with greater care. “One of the beautiful parts of JoC being the focus of this research is elevating the experiences of people who feel marginalized, voiceless and excluded, and creating resources to serve those people,” said riddick. “This will inevitably also serve the people who do feel included. And so it’s an opportunity to intentionally think about how to actually serve the entire Jewish community by beginning with who we are not serving.” 

riddick’s research yielded myriad insights about how Jews of Color think about end-of-life rituals and processes. One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was that interest in preparing for end-of-life care did not mean that participants had begun the journey of exploring the various options, resources, and rituals. While an overwhelming majority of participants (94%) have an interest in learning more about—and preparing for—end-of-life, 71% said they have not yet taken any concrete steps towards this goal. riddick believes this is an indication that there needs to be greater communal conversation and greater accessibility to resources. This can range from individual access supported by clergy and end-of-life professionals to increased involvement with chevra kadisha, a holy society of community members that support and assist families with end-of-life practices, including watching over the deceased and ritual purification before burial.

Another finding in the research was a pervasive sense of voicelessness among respondents. Many Jews of Color felt that there was nowhere to express the feelings of isolation and concerns they had about preparing for end-of-life matters Jewishly. “It caught me off guard,” riddick said. “These were all brilliant, capable people, and they’re not people that you might suspect would feel voiceless, or not stand up for themselves when necessary.” This harkens to the findings from Beyond the Count, which indicate that 45% of JoC have altered how they speak, dress, or present themselves in predominantly white Jewish spaces. riddick’s study demonstrates that experiences of voicelessness and isolation may have systemic origins. “I think this finding really invites us to think about where people are in this moment and all the factors that affect people’s abilities to advocate for themselves, especially when they are experiencing grief.”

The study also provided insights on certain barriers that are not unique to Jews of Color. For interfaith families and communities, for example, there is very little data on or resources for how to mourn Jewishly for a non-Jewish family member, and vice versa (how non-Jewish family and friends can honor a loved one’s Jewishness in their death). riddick noted that this is particularly salient when non-Jewish family members are in charge of planning end-of-life services. “People are really yearning for this information because we don’t really talk about how our JoC identities can be acknowledged and affirmed even in death,” said riddick. 

Encounters with racism also eroded many respondents’ confidence that they or their loved ones would be treated with dignity and respect after passing. riddick summarized many participants’ concerns concisely: “Who’s really going to be there for us? How can we have real confidence that we are going to be treated well in death if we weren’t treated well while living?” These questions were present for many of the research participants.

Alongside insights about systemic barriers were a number of responses that involved a total spectrum of human emotion—not just grief, doubt, and sorrow—that came up in discussions of end-of-life practices. Some respondents expressed a sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, even, of the communal support that came during times of grief and loss. “Some people shared that they enjoyed the process,” said riddick, who hopes her findings can support the creation of communal resources that are engaging, supportive, and enjoyable. 

“I think it brings to light the idea that when people are talking about the rich realities of life and death, that all emotions are inevitably going to be present.” When talking about personal loss and grief with interviewees, as well as through her own experience, riddick noted that many beautiful memories of a loved one’s life can rise to the surface in moments of loss. “When someone dies, you hear stories about them that make you feel like you know them a little bit. They’re great stories, I wish we heard them when they were alive.”

riddick believes that increased communication among families and communities can make end-of-life processes much more accessible and effective. “I hope that the report really encourages people to take whatever first small step they can— having those conversations with spouses and family members, or thinking about learning more in community and how connection and collaboration can make it easier,” said riddick. 

You can find a variety of resources and recommended readings on the Kavod v’Nichum website. Organizations supporting the end-of-life experience can email erica@kavodvnichum.org if interested in learning more about the post-research phase of resource creation, distribution, and education. riddick is also interested in connecting with Jewish people of color who have an interest in exploring death as a part of life and encourages them to reach out as well.

 

NOTE:

1. erica riddick intentionally chooses to lower case their name, following the anti-racist feminist tradition of prominent scholar bell hooks. https://www.bustle.com/entertainment/why-didnt-bell-hooks-capitalise-her-name.

Date Posted

May 2024

Author

Jews of Color Initiative