My Jewish Death
Imagine if you will, a middle aged Jewish mother laying comfortably on her back. She feels cocooned in softness. It’s quiet. Above her, a brilliant blue sky, a few puffy white clouds drift by. Birds, leaves rustling. She watches the sunlight through lush leaves, a hundred shades of green. A perfect moment.
Her vision is framed by a 6 by 3 foot rectangle, and she is sinking down into the earth.
Six feet down. Into her grave, at her funeral. The sinking is slow, and she becomes aware of the earth on either side of her. She hears singing, muffled. She sees faces now at the edges of her grave. People crying, peering down as they try to absorb one last second together. She sees them, backlit, glowing, as they begin shoveling dirt into the grave.
She hears herself asking for one more minute, one more minute of the impossibly blue sunny sky, shimmering air, dancing leaves … one more minute of this view … of these faces … of this beautiful crazy maddening blessing we call life.
Filmmaker and Chevrah member Saul Henteleff spent much of the last decade working on a film called “My Jewish Death.” Deeply moved by the death and funeral of local author, thinker, and storyteller (and my high school English teacher) Sheldon Oberman, z’l, Saul began his own journey of body and soul, exploring his own Jewish life and death. Saul joined our men’s Taharah team. He attended and filmed our Kavod v’Nichum annual conference in Portland, Oregon in 2006. He compiled hundreds of hours of interviews. Members of our Chevrah Kadisha performed a full taharah on him.
And so Saul showed me the film a couple of weeks ago in preparation for its premiere this fall.
Saul’s film does includes a scene similar to what I’ve described above. But the internal conversation is mine. Will my soul be at my own funeral? Who will I be when I’m dead? Through what lenses will I be viewing my own funeral? Will I still be aching for one more moment with family and fresh air, or will I already be beyond … in a place of truly unimaginable love and blue-skyness?
As a Gamliel graduate I’ve had the privilege of learning with scholars, teachers, Rabbis, and my brilliant and generous cohort. We’ve had hours of discussion about the soul after death, including a 5 part Taste of Gamliel series in 2015. The bedrock of Shmirah and Taharah is to comfort and honor the soul, in the belief that it is still aware. For me, Saul’s film added a whole new dimension to this conversation.
Rena Boroditsky is the Executive Director of the “>Kavod v'Nichum conferences and at Limmud events in the US & Canada. She recently launched Death Cafe Winnipeg. She has served in past and is currently a board member of “>Gamliel Institute, as well as a lecturer, and has completed all required studies and work, and graduated from the Gamliel Institute Chevrah Kadisha Program, and she returned recently from the inaugural Israel Study Mission which is the heart of the sixth course in the Gamliel Institute curriculum, International Perspectives.
[Editor’s Note: The theme of this piece is beautifully connected to a newly released ELI talk (9/9/15) by Dr. Michael Slater. ELI talks present innovative ideas and inspiring concepts exploring Jewish engagement, literacy and identity. All of them, including the one featuring Dr. Slater, can be accessed at
UPCOMING GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Classes weekly Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours). REGISTER NOW!
The course is an examination of the evolution of the institution of Chevrah Kadisha, starting from Biblical and Talmudic source texts, examining medieval development including the establishment of the “modern” Chevrah in Prague (1626) and on, through history and geography, as the institution was imported to North America, including a focus on major developments beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. We will look at how the Chevrah has changed over time, with readings that include text study and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.
During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This courses will run from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.
This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course looks as well at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Includes spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.
NEW CLASS TIME OPTION:
We are considering the options of offering a course mid-day (East Coast time) or morning (West Coast time) as a convenience to those who have scheduling issues with the evening times now in use (including those overseas), or providing links to the recorded sessions of the evening classes (to be viewed at the student’s convenience). This is anticipated to be the same online format and material as the courses that have been offered in past, but at a time that works better for some than the evening (Eastern Standard).
If you are interested in these options, please be in touch by November 1st to let us know: we need to assess the level of interest as we determine whether to incorporate these options.
Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization receive a 20% discount. There are clergy discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.
You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.
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