Leafing through some old notebooks recently, I came across something I had written when living in Mt. Airy, a suburb of Philadelphia where I went to rabbinical school. The neighborhood is home to many rabbinical students and faculty, and other Jewish people, all within easy walking distance, making it somewhat unique in the liberal Jewish world, although common in Orthodox communities: A good half, if not more, of my rabbinic education came from living in this community—-“DOING” Jewish.
Last night, before attending the Hanukkah party, I went to a shiva minyan. A person in our greater community’s father had died. I don’t know this person well, but he is a friend of a friend, and a general announcement was put out on the net of this shiva minyan. 15-20 people were gathered, to pray together, and listen to the mourner speak of his parent.
These gatherings are frequent in our neighborhood, and are one of the most rich and profound joys of living closely together with others with the common intention of living Jewish lives. Not only do we share these tender times with one another, but we hear the wisdom of one’s relationship to a parent, and have a moment to contemplate the meaning of our own lives, our own relationships.
The mourner last night closed his loving and reverent reminisces of a charming, unique and probably challenging father with tears in his eyes. These were different tears, in addition to his tears of grief. They were tears of gratitude for the support of his community coming to sit with him in his grief. His last words of the evening were, “Community is SO important. It is SO important.”
In my present life, here in San Francisco, three synagogue members recently lost parents. I am reminded again how these shiva minyans are such sweet times, where the mourners may reminisce as long as they choose, where others who knew the deceased share stories, filling in puzzle pieces that sometimes the mourner him or herself had not heard before. Until one has experienced this one’s self, it is hard to imagine what a comfort it is to be surrounded by caring people, listening, sharing, laughing, crying, clinging to the memories, with no rush, no imperative to deal with day to day life, for just a few days. That this is reviving to the spirit of the mourner may be obvious, but I must say that these time are reviving to the spirit of those who attend and listen and share. We take the best memories as models to emulate and weave them into our own hearts and values, so that the deceased influences the culture of the community.
These rituals of ours are not simply for the deceased, or for the mourners. They impact the meaning of life for the entire kehillah, forming deep bonds of gratitude and trust, and this is another reason why they are so important.
Me’irah Iliinsky is a Reconstructionist rabbi, as well as an artist. Her Judaica artwork provides “Visual Access to Sacred Texts,” and is a unique way to enter a more contemplative understanding of Judaism. She teaches Torah at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Her artwork can be viewed at Versesilluminated.com. She has been a student of and instructor for the Gamliel Institute.
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Gamliel Institute Course 1, Chevrah Kadisha History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE) will be offered over twelve weeks on Tuesday evenings from December 5th, 2016 to February 21st, 2017, online.
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The focus of this course is on the development of the modern Chevrah Kadisha, the origins of current practices, and how the practices and organizations have changed to reflect the surrounding culture, conditions, and expectations. The course takes us through the various text sources to seek the original basis of the Chevrah Kadisha, to Prague in the 1600’s, through the importation of the Chevrah Kadisha to America, and all the way to recent days. It is impossible to really understand how we came to the current point without a sense of the history.
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