By Rachel L. Axelbank
Lisa Berenson, center, with Temple Sinai of Sharon 6th-graders.
A burgeoning initiative of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts is endeavoring to remind local Jews that cemeteries are not only for the deceased. JCAM Director of Development Lisa Berenson launched the Cemeteries are for the Living program in the fall of last year, seeking to fill what she and JCAM colleagues saw as a gap in community – particularly youth – understanding of death as an elemental Jewish lifecycle event.
“We felt that there was a disconnect,” Berenson said. “People don’t want to talk to their kids about death, which is understandable. We thought that if we came up with an educational initiative like this, it would be a sensitive way for kids to reconnect with their Jewish heritage and to learn about Jewish end-of-life issues.”
For the program, Berenson leads tours – primarily for Hebrew school groups, although others have taken an interest as well – through a historically significant JCAM cemetery of her choosing. Along the way, she recounts the history of JCAM – as well as that of the particular cemetery – gives a lesson in headstone iconography and explains the meaning behind such rituals as leaving visitation stones and burying holy materials.
Joshua Slovin, director of education at Temple Sinai in Sharon, took the sixth graders in the temple’s Hebrew school to participate in the program in May.
“Studying Jewish lifecycles is a big part of the sixth grade curriculum, and we’ve learned about all the other aspects – except for death and dying – in an interactive way,” Slovin said. “I was looking for something more interactive than just learning from a book, but more tasteful than just visiting a funeral home.” He contacted Berenson for suggestions and was not disappointed.
Slovin and approximately 30 sixth-graders – plus 10-12 parent chaperones – joined Berenson on a sunny Thursday afternoon for a visit to Crawford Street Memorial Park in West Roxbury.
Slovin told the Advocate that he feels a Jewish examination of death should not be tied to tragedy and should be an appropriate presentation of the meaning behind rituals as well as of the rituals themselves.
“It turned out to be exactly what we were looking for,” said Slovin.
According to Berenson, end-of-life issues are absent in pre-b’nai mitzvah education. For this reason, synagogues have been taking part in the program, and many have been inviting parents to join the expedition. However, the program has also been popular among those seeking to fulfill mitzvot as well as education, including a Combined Jewish Philanthropies family tzedakah group and other synagogue collectives.
As part of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley’s mitzvah day program, Associate Rabbi Sharon Clevenger offered congregants the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of bringing Jewish texts to a geniza and participate in Cemeteries are for the Living. The group of teenagers and adults who opted in spent the time cleaning and otherwise serving the geniza. Additionally, they learned from Berenson about Jewish book burial, cemeteries and death ritual in general.
“Everyone thought it was great,” Clevenger said. “They felt like they had done an interesting mitzvah that not many people know about, and that they learned something new.”
Largely in deference to the weather, Berenson restricts the program to spring and fall. With the exception of a few slots, her schedule is entirely booked for the fall. She added, “I can see by the overwhelming response we’ve had that the community needs – and welcomes – this education.”
Reproduced here with the permission of The Jewish Advocate.