I was invited to speak to a group of interfaith couples about Jewish rituals and customs surrounding death. It was right around Purim, and the subject of hamentashen unexpectedly came up. So I went off on that tangent just for a short bit, happy to spread some uplifting Jewish knowledge beyond my usual.
It’s fascinating what emerges when I’m out in the community – or these days on Zoom – talking about a Jewish life cycle event that is not as openly discussed as ones eliciting more joy, like a bris or a b’nai mitzvah or a wedding, for instance.
But what I’ve observed over nearly two decades occupying this sphere on the Jewish communal spectrum is that there is space to elevate the importance of end-of-life education and conversation.
In fact, there is a hunger for it, especially now, at a time when mortality is arguably more centered in a public way than at any other time in our lives. As The New York Times and other major media outlets create special coverage of tragic pandemic milestones, the reality is in our faces and there is no respect paid by looking away.
When a fifth grader asked me recently, during a presentation I made to his synagogue class, how anyone could pre-plan a funeral when no one knows when a death may come, the question and the conversations that it generated at that moment – and I suspect with his family around the dinner table that evening – revealed a more universal reality.
That is, that such discussion about an inevitable life cycle event, and the Jewish practices surrounding it, is an opportunity to enlighten, and to build and strengthen not only Jewish observance, but also Jewish community.
It was 20 years ago that Plaza Jewish Community Chapel (PJCC) was established. It was the vision of individual philanthropists and Jewish organizations to create a community-owned not-for-profit Jewish funeral chapel, and a communal institution, resource and model taking its rightful place on the landscape of New York Jewish life.
Over those past two decades, that has played out in numerous, measurable, and replicable ways, and the very fact that my professional charge is to establish and nurture communal partnerships underscores this priority recognition of – and responsibility to – the greater community.
It is evident, for example, in the convenings of rabbinical and cantorial students to study the interface of chevra kadisha, funeral chapel, cemetery and government agencies. It is expressed through joint programming with Jewish day schools and synagogues to examine death and burial as a life cycle event.
It is reflected in similar classes and conferences offered throughout the community and along the entirety of Jewish denomination and affiliation. It is present in the establishment of a bereavement support group, and informing interfaith couples about the importance of Jewish end-of-life ritual.
And it is practiced, too, by PJCC’s grant-making, which has funded community projects from a palliative care counseling program in partnership with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, to one advancing awareness of advance care planning and end-of-life decision making with Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary, and The New Jewish Home. The program has touched thousands of lives.
The reality is that many people – even some highly engaged in the Jewish community personally and professionally – do not recognize end-of-life issues as a major part of the greater communal agenda, one often focused on certainly worthy and critical areas like youth engagement, Israel education, synagogue growth, and the like.
But by its very presence and impact and singular model, PJCC is testament to the fact that when viewed as a sacred service and community partner, a funeral chapel built on a foundation of social responsibility and outreach can and should be a channel for Jewish engagement, education, service, and a more thriving, healthy and complete Jewish community.