What A Graduation!
[Editor’s Note: 18 students of the Gamliel Institute, the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum, having successfully completed all courses and requirements as part of the certification process by the Gamliel Institute, participated in, and recently returned from, the first ever Study Mission that was at the heart of the capstone course in the Gamliel program. They studied, visited, learned, taught, met and connected with people and organizations involved in the mitzvot of Kavod Hameit and Nichum Aveilim in New York, Prague, and Israel (Including Tsefat and Jerusalem, among other sites). The study mission was groundbreaking, in that it exposed the Gamliel students to practices internationally, but even more so in that it created a dialogue and initiated relationships between Jews in all these places around the mitzvoth that are shared, though very differently practiced in the details. It is an opening on which to build to create a conversation and a sharing of best practices, learning, and mutual respect, cutting across boundaries of geography, denomination or practice, and time.
This blog entry is one of what I anticipate to be a series of entries, written by various members of the Gamliel graduates, and presenting their takes on various aspects of the trip. — JB]
OMG! In the history of time there has never been a graduation like this. Yes it was a real graduation experience, but no, there was no Pomp and Circumstance. Nor were there fancy gowns and caps with tassels. Missing also was the band, the hard seats, and long-winded speeches. This graduation was, for the first time in my life, a “real” graduation – something that propelled us onward, inspired us to act, uplifted us, and educated us, far beyond the classrooms, readings, writings, and discussions.
Like everything else in the Gamliel Institute, the quality of graduation far outshone that of every other school I have ever attended. This is a school dedicated and designed not only for education, but also inspiration, community involvement and healing, and tikkun olam (healing the world). No, it’s not rabbinic school, but about a quarter of our graduating class were rabbis. Our classes were all on-line. Gamliel offers five 12-week master-level courses. Students from all over North America attended, shared their lives, smiles, and wisdom, and learned together through a world-class curriculum. The focus of Gamliel is to train leaders to help communities reclaim the mitzvot appropriate when life ends.
The sixth course is the graduation experience, an intense 18-day study mission to New York City, Prague, Tsfat, and Jerusalem. During these packed, exhausting, yet inspiring days, we attended some 45 separate events. These ranged from simple lecture meetings to visits to museums to historic site tours to group dinner discussions. Every event related to Jewish practice at the end of life, covering the entire spectrum from visiting the sick, through death and burial, mourning, and Yahrzeit.
Eighteen Gamliel students, faculty, and staff went on this study mission. We met with teachers, students, and rabbis who taught us, shared with us, and helped us explore the essence of this work. We saw ancient manuscripts, rare books, old maps, letters, and documents, all related to our work and our history.
We saw museums and displays. We experienced the profound depth of pain in the holocaust, along with the profound depth of Kabbalah in Tsefat, and the profound depth of holiness in this work shining through the tearful faces of those in the IDF. (The Israeli Defense Force is the army in Israel. This team handles all casualties and deaths in the Israeli army.)
We learned about various practices in the taharah room, and in tachrichim designs. We learned about enlivening the soul through Sacred Hebrew song and Kabbalah-based artwork. And we learned how dedicated women stand for their rights in a world dominated by men, history and rigid procedures. We learned how very observant Orthodox women from the Tsefat Chevrah Kadisha and a mixed group of observant and less observant Western Jews could learn from each other in an intense two-hour conversation.
We saw taharah rooms that no other outside group had ever been allowed to enter. We experienced the privilege of being allowed to see and hear about sacred taharah rooms from chevrot as diverse as the NYC chevrah that does 1100 taharot per year with 650 members, to the Prague chevrah with 37 members, to the Haredi women of Tsefat who with just a few women handle all that needs to be done, to the chevrah in Sanhedria whose history dates back 800 years, to the IDF team whose taharah room is spotless, and whose respect and appreciation of the holiness of this task seemed to dwarf that of all of the other extremely dedicated and religious people doing this holy work.
We saw cemeteries in Tsefat dating from the 2nd century, and others in Prague and Jerusalem with graves from the 1400s. All with extensive and interesting history, and containing various famous people, teachers, and rabbis. We saw huge cemeteries in NYC and in Israel. For example, the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem has over 150,000 graves, and Mount Hebron cemetery in NYC contains some 217,000 graves. Some cemeteries in Prague have only a few hundred graves, while in Tsefat there are some 3000 graves filled with history. And, we got to experience the sanctity of the ancient catacombs at Beit Sha'arim where HaRav Yehudah Hanassi and his disciples from the 2nd century are buried, including his son, Rabban Gamliel, after whom this institution was named.
We saw graves that were single person graves, much as we are used to. And we saw double graves, with one person above the other. We saw ancient graves in which there are five levels of burial, with tombstones crowded over them. Then there are walls filled with graves stacked six high in the wall, all connected to each other and to the earth below. And we saw garage-like structures filled with floor after floor of all of the above. And finally even large tunnels, each the size of a football field with hundreds of graves in the walls of each tunnel.
And we helped birth the first ever Israeli-American Chevrah Kadisha Conference in Jerusalem. Over 100 people attended, and a number of very well known rabbis and teachers came to speak, including Rabbi Yaakov Ruza, the chief rabbi of the Tel Aviv Chevrah Kadisha, who is considered the posek for chevrah-related issues for all of the state-authorized chevrot in Israel. The attendees stood in silent respect when HaRav Adin Steinsaltz arrived and slowly took his place on the podium. At around 80 years old he is still a profound teacher. Many others shared that day, including the Haredi women from Tsefat. We ended the day with my leading a demonstration of how to perform a taharah, which was attended by some 25 people, even though it was after the official end of the program. One woman said this demo was the highlight of the day, as it made the other teachings real. Another woman told David Zinner, the organizer of this trip, that this conference changed her life. Truly, we birthed something very special.
As you can imagine, this was no ordinary graduation. We learned together, wept together, stood in awe together, shared great food, conversation, art, culture, wisdom, and joy together. It was inspiring, exhausting, exciting, overwhelming at times, and thoroughly enjoyable. We came home excited to do more; inspired to translate all we had seen, felt, shared, and experienced into something good for our communities and our world. Before and after the trip itself, this graduation course included readings and group discussions to help not only prepare us for the trip, but help us integrate afterwards the phenomenal content of this last course.
Now, that’s what I call a graduation! Gamliel is also the most amazing institution I’ve been privileged to attend. The quality of its staff, amazing content of the online course materials, flexible learning style, openness to new ideas, availability for all to attend, and a dedicated focus, all grounded in integrity, respect, and kavanah (holy intent), make this a unique school. I’m humbled and honored to be a graduate of the Gamliel Institute.
Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development for more than 30 years, and started the Chevrah Kadisha in Los Alamos, NM, in 1996. In 1998 he published the first edition of Guidelines for Performing Taharah as a manual to guide the local chevrah doing its holy work (the 4th edition is now available under the title, To Midwife A Soul). A new book is forthcoming soon (2015) titled, Rites of Death: The Beauty and Power of Jewish Tradition. In 2006, he co-founded the Chevrah Kadisha of Northern New Mexico, a community chevrah that includes members from six shuls, encompassing all branches of Judaism. In 2013 he published, Final Kindness: Honoring K’rovei Yisrael, a manual for preparing non-Jews for burial who are part of the Jewish community. Rick is a Vice President of the North American educational organization, Kavod v’Nichum, Honor and Comfort, and a student and instructor for the Gamliel Institute. He continues to teach and raise awareness about Chevrah Kadisha, Taharah, and Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels.
UPCOMING GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Starting in October:
Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Tuesdays, 12 online sessions (orientation session Monday October 12th, classes Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST. An examination of the modern Chevrah Kadisha from 1626 in Prague, through history and geography, as imported to Europe and the rest of the world, and brought to the US; with a specific contemporary focus on North America, and how the Chevrah has developed and changed over time up to the present. Studies include text study, and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.
During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering two courses. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S), and Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy [Other than Taharah] (RPL). These courses will begin in January, and will each run for 12 sessions. More information to come, or visit the Gamliel Institute section of the Kavod v’Nichum website.
NEW CLASS TIMES OPTION:
We are considering offering courses mid-day (East Coast time) as a convenience to those who have scheduling issues with the evening times now in use (including those overseas in Israel and other places). 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 this option, please be in touch to let us know: we need to assess the level of interest as we determine whether to offer this option. firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Contact us for more information about scholarships, or any other questions. firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410-733-3700.
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