A Harvest of Memories by Rabbi Stephen Karol

As a native of the Midwest living on the East Coast, I am occasionally asked what it’s like there. Sometimes, I simply say, “it’s nice” and sometimes I answer the question with another question, like: “What do you think it’s like? I’ve found that Easterners think that it’s pretty desolate there, with a lot of farm land and very little “civilization.” Where I grew up, it was just the opposite.  And, as a result, I know about as much about farming and crops and harvests as any New Yorker from Manhattan or Brooklyn or the Bronx. But, I know enough to be aware of the similarities between an agricultural harvest and the ways in which our memories work.

It seems to me that a harvest has three functions: to serve as an occasion for celebrating the bounty of Nature, to bring together the best of the crops that have been cultivated, and to sustain the people for whom the crops are so important. To our ancestors who were farmers and to present-day farmers, the importance of the harvest would be unquestioned. And it also without question that we have our own “harvest of memories” for our loved ones.

For our ancestors who lived in the land of Canaan, which later became known as “Israel” and “Judah,” the holiday of Sukot (Tabernacles) was the fall harvest. It was then that they would certainly find out whether their hard work in planting the summer crop had paid off or not. A summer drought meant a bleak harvest. But, more often than not, they probably enjoyed a bountiful harvest. Sukot, previously a holiday of historical significance commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, became an occasion for celebrating. The holiday was seven days long, and the eighth day – Shemini Atzeret – was a separate event, a so-called “sacred assembly.” The harvest, combined with the holiday, provided them with an occasion for collecting the bounty of Nature, and for thanking God for what they had.

By the same token, this holiday is a special occasion for us. It is one of the four times during the year that we observe Yizkor, following the first on Yom Kippur by less than two weeks. The heightened sensitivity and strong emphasis on remembering on Yom Kippur still prevail on this occasion. While Yizkor is in no way a celebration as a harvest might have been, it is an occasion on which we can give thanks. We can be thankful for the bounty of memories we have of those who are no longer living but who will always be loved. And, it makes remembering easier and more fulfilling when we have an occasion such as Yizkor to make that remembering a regular and special activity. The other important fact about Yizkor is that it’s a public occasion, a time when we can share the experience of remembering with others in a communal context.

As in every endeavor of life, our ancestors found that what happened at the time of the harvest was not always perfect. Not all of their crops were successful and not every plant of a successful crop was the best it could be. But the point of a harvest was to glean the best of each crop and use it for food. In addition, the harvest time – particularly Sukot – brought out the best in our ancestors morally. They made it a practice to offer the best of their fruits and their cuttings to God. And, they were commanded to leave the four corners of their fields unharvested, to not pick their vineyards bare, and to reserve some of what they had for the poor and the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

Similarly, when we have a harvest of our memories, we tend to recall the best qualities of people and the best experiences we shared with them. We would agree that their lives may not have been perfect, or that their actions may not always have been exemplary. But these facts do not deter us from remembering the best about them. The ancient rabbis believed that there was always something positive to say about everyone; that’s why they insisted on eulogies at funerals. Neither they nor I would propose to have rose-colored glasses or to create erroneous pictures of people who didn’t really exist. Reality is important, but so is the act of remembering. In thinking about loved ones positively, it brings out the best in us. And, like the harvest did for our ancestors, our remembering should benefit us and those close to us.

Finally, the harvest provided sustenance for people. In a literal sense, the products or produce of the harvest kept them alive, giving them physical sustenance. And, the harvest must have had some emotional value, too – as a time unlike any other, as an event to be regarded with great anticipation, and as the culmination of one period and the beginning of another. Even in the years when the yield was not the greatest, there still must have been a keen awareness of the cycles and rhythms of Nature, and a sense of comfort because of the ways in which our people made time sacred.

In the same way, our memories provide sustenance for us. We may wish that things had been different – that loved ones were still alive, that they had lived longer, that we had said more to them or done more for them than we did. We may have these wishes, and then realize that we cannot change what has happened. It is crucial to remember what was, not to imagine what could have been. And then, it is a mitzvah to honor our loved ones who have died, to cherish our memories of them and be sustained by those memories, to understand that our lives changed when they died, and to be increasingly aware of how we spend our comparatively brief time on this Earth.

We do not have to be farmers to understand that a harvest is a communal occasion which brings the best to people to enhance their lives and to sustain them. And, we do not have to be recent mourners to understand that our memories that are brought back by a communal occasion such as Yizkor, can bring out the best in us and always sustain us. May our memories be pleasant, providing us with a sense of thankfulness for the past and a real feeling of sustenance for the future.

 

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.

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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.