Analog Practice in a Digital World by Matt Harle

Why join a Chevrah?  Why now? This essay seeks to address these questions from two angles, one global and one personal, as well as to explore the intersection of the two.

 

First the personal.  My father died in 1999, my mother in 2012.  In both cases I felt compelled to find ritual means that would allow me to honor their individuality and the specificity of my connection to them.  The idea of handing things over to “professionals”, whether a funeral home or the clergy, felt like a kind of betrayal. Since both deaths occurred prior to my conversion to Judaism, I had no access to the rituals that I now seek to promote, and I felt no real connection to Presbyterian death practice (to the extent that I could determine if there was such a thing).

Overall, I feel I succeeded in my efforts, my mom receiving the second line procession, brass instruments in the lead, that her love of celebration seemed to call for, while my dad was remembered with the Bartok and poetry that he loved.  No doubt much of this drive came from my experience as an artist, the same drive that led me to make my own huppah, and that led my wife, also an artist, to customize her wedding dress . But it was also part of a larger context, one that continues to find expression in the present.

 

That context can be broadly termed Do it Yourself (DIY) culture.  In many times and places, DIY is just part of the fabric of everyday life.  It doesn’t need a name because it’s taken for granted. This is certainly true of the origins of taharah and the whole range of Jewish end of life practices.  But perhaps broadly speaking, the trend in Western societies has been away from the personal towards the institutional; away from intimate experience and towards alienation in its literal sense.

 

At least since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have idealized the move away from the hands-on as a form of liberation, and of course in some ways that’s been true (who among us would truly wish to return to the harsh realities of pre-industrial, agrarian society?).  But as we outsource our experience; as the machinery that governs our daily lives becomes less and less accessible to us, we also see our autonomy being whittled away.

 

This ceding of control in the interest of notions of freedom and leisure reached new heights in the post-war America of fast food, self-cleaning ovens and the rise of the military-industrial complex.  Ultimately, however, the emptiness left in progress’ wake helped jump-start the countercultural movements of the 60’s, including the rise of DIY. Of course, the 60’s were many things, from Vietnam to Civil Rights; from Woodstock to Altamont.  But underneath it all, I think was an attempt on the part of the public to reclaim control of their political and social realities. Many of these avenues of DIY “resistance” are with us in one form or another today, the children of “Steal This Book” and “The Whole Earth Catalog”.

 

Paralleling these developments in the wider culture was the movement to revitalize the Chevrah and to wrest ownership of our own deaths away from the control of the funeral industry.  Gaining steam in the 60’s through the efforts of people like Rabbis Sidney Applbaum and Samuel Dresner, as well as through the publication of books like Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” and Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning”, this movement found full expression in the 70’s, signaled by, among other things, the publication of Rabbi Arnold Goodman’s “A Plain Pine Box”.

 

But back to the personal.  I was a teenager in the mid-70’s to early 80’s.  As I began to find my way out of my childhood world, I became increasingly aware of the surge in DIY culture around me.  My primary point of entry was through music, particularly through Punk and experimental music of various kinds. The linking factor in all of these musics was a rejection of the established means of production and distribution, as well as a contempt for the “corporate” products of the mainstream music industry (ok, I’ve learned to appreciate Led Zeppelin, but in those days they were the antithesis of the DIY ethos and therefore the enemy).

 

DIY was also in the air in the “‘zine” culture of self-publishing; in underground comics; in homemade (and home-altered) clothing.  And in 1980, when I enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, DIY was also there in education: conventional majors were frowned on in favor of hybrid degrees in, say, Biology-Religion or Physics-Art.  And, of course, my subsequent time in art school led me even further down the path. All of which is to say that the DIY sensibility was very much part of my environment as I set about figuring out who I was, and it has inevitably colored how I see the world and what I seek from it.

 

So why “Analog Practice in a Digital World”?  I originally began thinking about this during Course 1B (“Origins and Evolution”).  The question was, “what gives you hope in moving the Chevrah forward?”. For me, given my predisposition towards DIY and music, the answer seemed somehow related to the reasons why, suddenly, vinyl records have become popular again, perhaps even threatening to outlast cds.  This may seem like a trivial, boutique consumer fad, but I think the roots go deeper.

 

Just as the Industrial Revolution eventually led to a sense of alienation from one’s own experience, so too has the Information Revolution.  As our lives are increasingly lived on our phones, people are beginning to seek ways of reconnecting with physical experience. A vinyl record is not just a consumer choice:  it forces you to interact with the physical production of sound via a needle in a groove; it is less conducive to casual, distracted listening as you have to be there when the side ends and it’s time to flip it over.  I offer you this as a metaphor for trends I see in the culture at large.

 

Some of these trends are outgrowths of the 60’s counterculture:  the rise of community supported agriculture for example. Similarly, I know more and more people who are taking up beekeeping and chicken-raising, as well as people making or repurposing their own clothes, or choosing to swap with others rather than buy new.  Sure, none of this is threatening the hegemony of Amazon (yet), but it’s in the air.

 

Politically, recent years have seen the rise of the Occupy, Me Too and March for Our Lives movements as well as the evolving environmental movement typified by groups like the Yippie inspired Extinction Rebellion and Generation Z figures like Greta Thunberg.  And who could have imagined even twenty years ago the rise of avowed Socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

 

Another direct outgrowth of DIY is Maker culture.  Primarily concerned with demystifying technology and taking production out of the hands of tech giants (for example, guiding people through the process of creating their own 3-D printers), Maker culture is a more hands-on, physical outgrowth of hacker culture.  Disseminating information and practical advice through publications like Make magazine, as well as through gatherings called Maker Faires, Maker culture seeks to empower people without being in denial about our technological realities. Many schools now have “Maker” rooms to re-engage kids with the physical and counter the passive consumption encouraged by online living.

 

What does this have to do with the Chevrah?  I think that all the above developments have made this an ideal time to spread information about the Chevrah to a wider, younger audience.  Taking ownership of death is only a baby-step away from taking ownership of what you eat or how you give birth. The key is finding ways to get the Chevrah to this audience.  While this is a work in progress, I would say that one example might involve setting up shop at a Maker Faire: giving workshops on aron construction, tachrichim sewing, mushroom shrouds, even human composting.  While specific to the Jewish community, all of these things have applications and implications for a wider demographic. Other venues might include farmers markets; workshops at alternative schools (or mainstream schools if they are receptive); shroud-making circles at local sewing collectives; presentations at local TED/ELI styled gatherings (we periodically have one where I live in Beacon, NY called a Pecha Kucha).

 

One of the reasons given for the return to vinyl records, tube amps and analog synthesizers is that there is a warmth to their sound that is missing in their digital counterparts.  By bringing its profound warmth to the subject of death, I believe the Chevrah is perfectly attuned to this moment.

 

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

Matt Harle is an artist, musician, and aspiring chaver. 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 third 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.