A Universal Topic We Would Rather Avoid

Stained glass in the Koret Pavilion at Hillel@Stanford reminds us that time is precious.

What do cartoonist Roz Chast, Zen teacher Norman Fischer, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and seven rabbis have in common? Answer: they along with 13 others have contributed original essays to an important new book on a topic most of us would rather not talk about at all. I am honored to be one of those contributors.

Reflections on Jewish Death & Mourning: Respect, Ritual and Remembrance” was conceived and edited by Samuel Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha in San Francisco. I have known Sam for two decades as among the most thoughtful and insightful leaders in the Bay Area Jewish community. In this book, he has invited a wide range of contemporary thinkers to share their personal observations on loss, human mortality and why Jewish traditions at the end of life should matter to all of us.

Image courtesy of Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha

Sinai Memorial is the only nonprofit Jewish funeral home and chevra kadisha (translated as “sacred society”) serving the entire spectrum of the Jewish community in the United States. That unique role provides a broad perspective on a dimension of 21st century American Jewish experience that may be the most universal, yet possibly the least discussed.

Sooner or later, all of us will be faced with questions the book explores. Will we have a Jewish funeral? Do we even know what makes a funeral Jewish and why? What about cremation? What does a chevra kadisha do anyway and why would anyone want to be involved? Do we understand the practices of Jewish mourning and how they sensitively support mourners through the stages of grief and reemergence into daily life? Why should we care?

The work of Jewish artist Roz Chast was featured in a major retrospective exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Here I am sharing a moment of angst with one of her creations.

Although it is far better to consider these topics before having no choice, most of us would just as soon avoid them. Or as the title of Roz Chast’s brilliant graphic memoir puts it, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Salkin’s response lets us hear directly through first-person stories that we actually can talk about these matters and that it can be meaningful, thought provoking and in surprising ways, pleasant.

My essay describes how in a moment of tragedy, I encountered the beauty and depth of Jewish text study for the first time in a way that became life changing for me. It is a personal story that I never imagined sharing publicly, as it is always easier to maintain a comfortable third-person distance than to disclose the turning points in one’s religious life. It is that very personal and authentic approach, however, that will make the few hours I encourage you to devote to reading Salkin’s book time well spent. Having so recently prayed to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we can all benefit from its wisdom.

The book includes essays by a wide range of contributors.

Reflections on Jewish Death & Mourning: Respect, Ritual and Remembranceis available for purchase through Amazon, and you can download a pdf at no cost from the Sinai Memorial website.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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