Geniza Burial as a way to teach about Death

By Bekah Starr and Rabbi Brent Spodek

Inevitably, children face loss. Grandparents die, as do parents, siblings and friends.

In those moments of familial grief and upheaval, it can be difficult to take the time to talk to kids, deliberately and thoughtfully, about the rituals and customs of Jewish mourning or about the realities of death. So often, the pain of loss iscompounded by the confusion and feeling of powerlessness that comes from not knowing what is going on.

Our small community, Beacon Hebrew Alliance, recently acquired new High Holiday prayer books, leaving us with a few hundred old prayerbooks we no longer needed. The prayerbooks, of course, have the Divine name printed all over them, so when we couldn’t find a community that wanted them as a donation, we knew that we had to bury them, in accordance with Jewish Law (SA 154:5).

We also knew that scheduling what amounted to a “funeral” weeks in advance meant we had the opportunity to teach our students about death in a child-centered experience, without the emotional, spiritual or logistical needs of a family for the burial of a person.

We had two goals for the day: one, that on an intellectual level, students understand the Jewish practices around death and two, that on an emotional level, students have a chance to reflect on death and talk about it.

This event was co-created by Rabbi Brent Spodek, Ashley Baker and Bekah Starr, a ritual artist. We share here a brief overview of what we did, in hopes that it might be useful for other communities interested in using Geniza Burial as a way to teach about death.

The burial took place on a Sunday morning as part of Masa, our regularly-scheduled Hebrew school. Upon arriving at the synagogue that morning, each child was offered a book to spend time with. They were encouraged to explore the book using different senses. How does the book smell? What do the pages feel like? Could they find their Hebrew name or a favorite prayer? The child was also encouraged to draw a picture of something special that brought them comfort and tuck it into the folds of the book. Each child then carried “their” book with them as we drove to the burial site. This was meant to give them a special relationship with the book and a way to experience a simple, safe kind of loss.  

At the burial site, the grave was dug in advance and the bulk of the prayerbooks were placed into the grave before the students arrived and a sheet was placed over them. We have about 30 students in our Hebrew school, and left about 60 books for our students to ceremonially place in the grave. The books were stacked in four piles at the compass points, each one about 20 yards away from the grave.

Often people, including kids, can channel nervous energy by making jokes and minimizing the significance of something that feels uncomfortable, and we wanted their energy to be calmly centered on what was happening. So, when the students arrived at the cemetery, our cantor, Ellen Gersh and Bekah Starr brought everyone together with song and chant that helped us center our focus on what was going on.

Rabbi Brent Spodek dropped pebbles from above, one by one into a bucket of water, and talked about how just as water ripples when a pebble is dropped in it, so too does the world ripple when a soul enters the world. Our ripples interact with the ripples from others, as we make friends, fall in love and live our lives. Inevitably though, every stone sinks to the bottom, the ripples abate and the water returns to stillness. So too, do the ripples of any given life ultimately abate, and when that happens, we return the body to the earth. We discussed also how in our tradition, the final act of love we show to bodies is to wash them before burial, and explained that we would be showing that kindness to the books we were burying.

We then arranged the students in four lines, each stretching from a pile of books towards the grave in the center. The student closest to the pile of books in each line would pick up a prayerbook, kiss it, pass it to the next student, who dusted each book using an eagle feather and so on down the line, until the last student placed it in the grave. After all the books were in the grave, we draped the books with fabric, so as to not shovel dirt directly onto the books in a way that might seem disrespectful. Then, adults and children shoveled the earth on top of the books, just as we do at a funeral. While all this was happening, we continued chanting so as to maintain focus.

After the grave was full, adult members of our community took the students in groups of two or three to visit the graves of people in the community who have passed on and to hear a little bit about their lives. Each visit to a tombstone was also an opportunity to learn about the practice of placing a stone on a tombstone.

At the end, we gathered everyone together to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Male Rachamim and made space for final thoughts and reflections before returning to the synagogue.

Obviously, none of us really understand death. But our students left that day with a greater understanding about how the Jewish tradition recognizes and honors the end of life, and an opportunity to talk with peers and adults about this central, but often muted, part of human existence.

Special thanks to everyone at Beacon Hebrew Alliance who made this happen, particularly Wendy and Julia Alexander, Ashley Baker, Debbie Broshi, Cantor Ellen Gersh and Sam and Matt Harle. If you have any questions about this program, please be in touch with Julia Alexander, our Director of Education at julia@beaconhebrewalliance.org.

About the Author
Brent Spodek is rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. He previously served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Brent has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, and by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as "a rabbi to watch." Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.
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