Death in the Sukkah by Matt Harle

I think this may be a story of control submitting to grace. But first some background. For six years now, my synagogue, Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, NY, has built a sukkah in a public park on Main Street. Each year there’s a different theme, with programming reflecting that theme. This year, for a variety of reasons, the sukkah almost didn’t get built. But as Sukkot approached, the loss seemed too great, and we rallied to get it done, this time around the theme of conversation.

As the organizer and nominal leader of BHA’s Chevra Kadisha, I’ve tried, over the past year since its establishment, to find ways of involving the community and increasing awareness of the Chevra. Some of those attempts have included a 7th of Adar celebration, a Death Cafe, a showing of the film “Departures”, an “Eth Cafe” (an ethical will/living will workshop), and a tachrichim sewing group. Given the theme of this year’s sukkah, I felt a reprise of the Death Cafe would be a good fit.

When I held my first Death Cafe in the Spring, I went to great lengths to create a cafe-like atmosphere in the somewhat drab environment of the BHA community room: there were checkered tablecloths, candles, low lighting, and the requisite coffee, tea and dessert. Over 30 people showed up, conversation flowed, and the evening, I think, was a success.

Returning now to the present.  I had scheduled this second Cafe for Thursday, the fourth day of Sukkot. Though the forecast had been good, Thursday arrived bringing scattered rain and gusty winds. I’d publicized the event widely through emails, social media and posters around town, so I decided to hope for the best and hold to the plan. During the day, I made cupcakes decorated with Day of the Dead skulls, and gathered together all the supplies needed to recreate the first Cafe.

Arriving at the park was a shock. The fabric we’d used to wrap the sukkah had ripped loose in the wind, as had some of the reed mats that formed the roof. It was close to 6:00pm, and the Cafe was set to start at 7:00, so I wasn’t sure if I would have time to fix the sukkah as well as set up before people started arriving. To cut wind resistance, I folded the fabric in half, creating a 360 degree opening in the top half of the sukkah. No longer obscured, the fast-moving, bruise-colored clouds were now an integral part of the atmosphere.

Having saved the structure, I set about trying to decorate, and once again the wind defeated me. Thinking a few thumbtacks would secure the festive but cheap, plastic tablecloths, I instead found that they ripped loose almost immediately. Candles were of course out of the question. I couldn’t even reliably leave the cupcakes out. Taking inventory of the situation, I felt despair at the almost total subversion of my plans. I ran through the options: Cancel? Relocate to the shelter of BHA? But how to let people know? I decided to wait and see if anyone would come before making new plans.

So, yes, control. I’d lost it, clearly, as evidenced by the semi-nude sukkah and the bare picnic tables. Not my idea of a cafe. But apparently that didn’t matter to the eighteen people who braved the weather to come to the sukkah and talk about death. If anything, the disarray was a catalyst.

My introductory question—“what brought you here?”—kept the conversation going for a while. But eventually the discussion at my table turned to the nature of identity. What is this thing called “me”? Is it an illusion, or is it an irreducible something that persists even after death? As many answers as mouths to voice them, the conversation finally wound down around 9:00 as people left for the warmth of homes with solid roofs and walls.

As I cleaned up, I thought about the sukkah, and about how it had never seemed so much itself as it had that night:  a rickety construction housing a rickety event, walls and plans in tatters, and yet luminously alive.  Perhaps, paradoxically, the sukkah’s irreducible essence is its impermanence; its permeability to chance and the unforeseen, brought to life by the questions and conversations it contains.  Perhaps, in other words, the sukkah is a lot like us.

Matt Harle with Day of the Dead Cupcake
Matt Harle with Day of the Dead Cupcake

Matt Harle is an artist, musician, and aspiring chaverr. He is a student of the Gamliel Institute, making his way through the core curriculum. He lives and works in the Hudson Valley in Beacon New York. This is his second blog for Expired And Inspired, and we look forward to more. 

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Upcoming Gamliel Institute Courses

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.

 

Gamliel Continuing Education provides advanced programs in three 90 minute to 2 hour sessions on consecutive Wednesdays in the Spring and Fall each year. The next series will be September 4th, 11, and 18th, 2019, taught by Rabbi En Leader. The topic will be Taharah Liturgy. Tuition is $72.00.

 

Taste of Gamliel is a series delivered on a monthly basis, consisting of five 90 minute sessions. The tuition is $36.00. In general the series runs from January to May or June, usually on Sundays. The 2020 topic will be announced soon.

 

Gamliel Café is a free monthly online gathering of Gamliel Students at which one of the Gamliel students or faculty will offer a teaching or lead a discussion, and the conversation will flow from there, with an opportunity to catch up and network..It is scheduled for the third Thursday of the month, when there is no holiday or other reason to cancel. 90 minutes.

The next Gamliel Café will be on June 20th, and will feature Rabbi Richard F. Address, the newly announced incoming Dean of the Gamliel Institute.

 

To register for any of these events, go to jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. For more information or to discuss special circumstances, contact us at info@jewish-funerals.org or 410-733-3700.

 

If you are interested in submitting a blog entry, please be in touch with us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or 304-989-4014. We welcome articles from 750 to 3000 words that relate to Jewish matters around living Jewishly, the end of life, dying, death, chevrah kadisha, Taharah, Shmirah, comforting the ill and mourners, and other related issues.

 

We hope that you find this blog to be uplifting and inspiring. We would welcome your thoughts and reactions.

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.