Intro: Life After Death by Rabbi Stephen Karol

I am honored to be asked to write for the Kavod v’Nichum Blog.  Since this is my first entry, I wanted to introduce myself to you—at least in terms of what I believe as a rabbi and a mourner.  Like you, I am involved with doing mitzvot before and after a death occurs.  It is important for us to be clear about what we believe and how it affects what we do.

Despite my faith in life after death, I am afraid to die. It’s the uncertainty that bothers me. I don’t like uncertainty in general. How much the more so should it bother me about an existence for which there seems to be no real proof. There is speculation, there are “near-death experiences” that people have that seem to have certain elements in common, and there is unquestioned faith among hundreds of millions of religious people. For some, it is better than life on earth, or it is a reward (or punishment) for our earthly deeds.

I can tell you exactly when my uncertainty started. We were living in Hingham, Massachusetts, and I was serving my second congregation of the three that I served over a period of thirty-seven years. Our daughter Samantha had just been born, and her bedroom was across the hall from our bedroom. She would occasionally sing herself to sleep;  at least that’s what her mother and I called it. She would hum and sound perfectly happy as she drifted off to sleep with a cassette tape of pleasant music playing in the background. Most of the time, I was amazed at how fortunate I was and we were. But, all of a sudden one night, I sat up in bed and began to think about what it would be like to not have this kind of happiness, and – even worse – to not be alive! What would it be like? And how would I know? I learned later from a therapist that I was “catastrophizing” – letting my imagination run wild and take me to dark places that were the worst possible scenarios.

This “catastrophizing” – specifically, about not being alive – still crops up occasionally. But, a combination of faith and therapy have convinced me that there is certainty about this: I have no control over what happens to me after I die, but I do have control over what I think and what I feel and what I believe about it. And, I have the ability to share my faith and my hope with others – especially in my role as a rabbi. So, I choose to believe in life after death.

But what if I am wrong? What if I am wrong as a rabbi and a mourner? What if – as some people believe – there is nothing after death? What if there is no “World-To-Come?” What if there is no reuniting with the souls of the people you loved? What if there is no resurrection of the dead and a chance at a second life? And what if my faith is right? What if the preaching and teaching I have been doing for forty years about enduring hope and endless love is right? What if there is something in the World-To-Come that involves being reunited with the souls of the people I loved here on earth? I believe that it is right to have faith. Whenever I delivered a sermon at a memorial service or a eulogy at a funeral, whenever I counseled someone whose loved one had died or taught a class about life after death, I hoped that what I had to say about death would bring my congregants and my students comfort and perspective and confidence. For the most part, having hope and faith has worked for them, and it has worked for me.

I got married for the second time in September of 2016 to a beautiful woman named Donna, who also has a beautiful soul. She believes that we were “meant to be,” and that we will be connected after we die because we are bashert (predestined to be together). Although I am a little more than seven years older than she is, there is no guarantee that I will die first—especially when you take into consideration that she has had cancer of the stomach lining twice, and is now in remission. But, she is confident that we will be reunited in the World-To-Come, that God is good and will arrange the shidduch (match) for us there, and that our souls will experience eternity together. She is incredibly convincing, and I – more of a skeptic about the afterlife than she is – have become a “convert” to her way of thinking and feeling. It is a happy thought and a happy feeling that forms the foundation of her belief, and I am happy to share it with her.

I have written a book, entitled Finding Hope and Faith in the Face of Death: Insights of a Rabbi and Mourner, in which I convey important spiritual messages about understanding the value of life, making each day count, cherishing the people we love, and being compassionate toward those who are suffering. Actually, “empathetic” is probably a better word. I have found that the best comforters of mourners are those loved ones and friends and clergy who have experienced the same pain and have come through it. That doesn’t mean that the mourners are totally healed, but it does mean that they understand the journey, and the stops and starts along the way that are natural and difficult, and those that are inspiring and surmountable.

I have been an admirer and “disciple” of Rabbi Harold Kushner since I read his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In fact, when I teach about Jewish theology, I refer to myself as a “Kushnerian.” I have had the good fortune to hear him speak a few times, and I will never forget his observations one of those times about Job and his friends. As you may know, Job is the man to whom everything terrible happens, and his friends come to visit him and argue with him and accuse him. “While we may not like the substance of their message to him,” Rabbi Kushner said at one of those speeches, “at least they were there for him.”

That is exactly what happens when you do Chevra Kadisha work, and that is what my book is about – “being there” for people at a time of death, and providing some comfort and hope and faith for them. Sometimes our words are eloquent. Sometimes our gifts are appreciated. But sometimes, we are at our best and we are the most empathetic when we are simply there.  We honor the deceased by our actions when we perform the mitzvot  involved with death. We don’t stay away, and we don’t get scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, and we often choose to do what others cannot or will not do.  We are God’s angels, God’s partners when we draw from our knowledge, our experience, and the inherent sensitivity of Jewish Tradition when a death occurs. I believe that God is there for me in my life, and that my being supportive and helpful to others is what God wants me to do—specifically, to make a positive difference in the lives of others. My father died in 2002 and my mother in 2004.  I have faith and hope that they and God are “smiling with pride” in the World-to-Come whenever I or anyone else makes a positive difference.

 

Rabbi Stephen Karol
Rabbi Stephen Karol

Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.

3 comments On Intro: Life After Death by Rabbi Stephen Karol

  • Merle Kharasch Gross

    This is a lovely, lovely piece that embraces all the “possibilities” without being preachy.
    For me, my “life” after my last breath will be however it is that I am remembered, by many or few. My sister recalls that our father would ask us “Did you do something today that makes you feel proud?” I’m 77 and still mindful of his subtle advice.

    I do not “fear” death but I do fear the “dying” part. Whenever the subject comes up (as it does with increasing frequency in the last decades) everybody pretty much agrees that whatever fear there is, it’s abou the process. We are learning to be committed to talk and DO what we can to impose control over the dying part: to avoid/eliminate pain, hospitals, intrusions that are not part of healing.

    It’s hard to imagine non-being, yet, I think that we in the Chevra Kadisha may be actually be learning something about it in the same inexplicable way that we learn the importance, the gift, the privilege of being here at all.
    Merle Kharasch Gross

  • Thanks for your comments, Merle. Very profound. Concerns about dying are often expressed at my talks. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of my book, please let me know (rabbistephenkarol@gmail.com),

  • Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs

    Having been at the precipice of death 2x’s………….and yet am fortunate enough to have “come ‘thru”……I can speak to my personal belief that when the lights go out….the show is over, and I have no belief in an afterlife. I had no fear, I had no preconceived notion of seeing anyone again….and, the blackness that I saw was peaceful.
    As I realized then and do now…it is BEFORE THIS moment that I must find meaning in.death……..whether it is each day reminding the ones that I love – that I love them… or fulfilling my promises to others and especially to myself – to the best of my ability – even when my abilities are limited. At those 2 moments – separated in time by months……….I fully realized that I am not afraid to die, I am only afraid that with all good intentions…..others wont let me!. POLST!!! 🙂

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The next course scheduled for the Gamliel Institute is Course 3 – Chevrah Kadisha Education, Organization, and Leadership (EOL). It focuses on leadership, communal education, and organizational skills for creating and maintaining a Chevrah Kadisha. It will run September 3rd through December 17th 2019. Registration is $500. with a volume and clergy discount available.

 

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About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.

SUBJECTS WE WILL COVER

Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.

 

We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.

KAVOD v’NICHUM

Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide (http://www.slingshotfund.org/overview/). Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/about-kavod-vnichum) offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (http://jewish-funerals.org/north-american-chevra-kadisha-and-jewish-cemetery-conferences).

THE GAMLIEL INSTITUTE

The Gamliel Institute (http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute) is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.

 

The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.

OUR AUTHORS

We have invited those who are involved in this sacred work to submit items for this blog. Among those who have joined us are some the officers, staff, and members of Kavod v’Nichum, Administrators, Instructors, and students in the Gamliel Institute, and others who wish to participate. We welcome original submissions by the author, but reserve the right to accept or reject, publish as is, edit, or modify the submission. The author retains the copyright to the work in regard to any other publishing of that material so long as they include a notice that the work originally appeared in the Kavod vNichum blog Expired and Inspired, but Kavod v’Nichum has full rights to reproduce and use with attribution any item that it publishes as part of this blog, for the purposes of instruction, inclusion and display on our website, or as part of training materials, newsletters, or other publications we produce and distribute.