Teaching high school students about Jewish death rituals
(Miami, April 26, 2015)—“The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Passage” is a unique curriculum designed to teach high school students about the mitzvah of tahara (ritual purification of the body after death). This eight-session demonstration course was launched in the spring of 2015 at The Weinbaum Yeshiva High School (WYHS) in Boca Raton, Florida and will then be disseminated to Jewish high schools throughout the English-speaking world.
“The Jewish tradition has remarkable things to say about human dignity. However, few people are aware that this respect and dignity continues to be expressed after an individual’s death. Our research indicates that there is little awareness of the importance of this topic among Jewish educators. Furthermore, there are virtually no materials available to teachers on this subject matter,” says Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, head of school for WYHS.
“I have always admired the special individuals of the chevra kadisha (burial society). Those who volunteer for these groups often have a sense of depth that radiates from their eyes and possess a sense of tranquility in their being. This is important work on a significant subject. Unfortunately, many Jews are not well informed about the rituals surrounding death. Teaching this material to high school students will help to inform the next generation, and hopefully it will have a trickle-up effect,” says Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi.
“We applaud the efforts of Rochel Berman, whose beautiful and well-researched book, Dignity Beyond Death, is a significant work. And we admire the willingness of the Weinbaum Yeshiva to take on this significant project. This is not typical subject matter for a high school. Some people may question the idea of teaching this type of information to students at this stage of their lives. But there is a logic to targeting this age group. High school is the last time that we can reach Jewish students en masse before they disperse. Hopefully this curriculum will serve to imprint them with the eternal beauty of this sacred mitzvah as they go off to college and into the world.”
To develop the curriculum, WYHS is working in partnership with Rochel Berman, author of the book Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial. Part of her mission in writing the book was to “bring this unique and beautiful ritual out of obscurity.”
The course explores these topics:
- Placing death in the context of the Jewish lifecycle
- The work of the chevra kadisha as it relates to the core values of Judaism
- Field trip to funeral home for demonstration of tahara rituals and tasks
- History of the chevra kadisha
- Significance of prayers: the role of halacha and minhag in tahara
- The Holocaust and acts of terrorism as they relate to the work of the chevra kadisha
- Halachic issues regarding autopsy and organ donation
- Impact of tahara on community, chevra members, and families of the deceased
In addition to the course, the school is developing a companion study guide with comprehensive information on each topic as well as written assignments, topics for discussion, and further reading. After WYHS pilots the eight-unit course with 10th and 11th grade students, it will widely disseminate the curriculum, accompanying videos, and study guides, beginning in 2016.
Over the course of a few weeks in March 2015, twenty-eight students participated in the pilot course. The Florida Jewish Journal called it a “trailblazing project” (read the article here). Kayla Gross, a student who participated in the course said, “The sessions met and surpassed my expectations. It was truly fascinating to learn about this big mystery in Judaism that most people know nothing about. I was very moved to learn about the attention to detail, the dignity and the respect shown for the deceased.”
About Weinbaum Yeshiva High School
Founded in 1998, Weinbaum Yeshiva High School is the only co-educational Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school serving Palm Beach and Broward counties. Its mission is to inspire and challenge students to reach their intellectual, personal, and spiritual potential in an environment that stimulates critical thinking and academic and religious growth. For more information on the school, visit its website at www.wyhs.net.
About Rochel Berman
Rochel Berman is author of Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial. She is a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kasisha, a consultant to the Congregation B’nai Torah Chevra Kasisha in Boca Raton, and for seventeen years was a member of the Congregation Rosh Pinah Chevra Kadisha in Westchester, New York. She narrated the 2004 PBS segment on Chevra Kadisha that aired on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Her articles have appeared in many publications. She holds a master’s degree in social work and is a public relations professional.
About Targum Shlishi
Targum Shlishi is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information on the foundation, visit its website at www.targumshlishi.org. Follow Aryeh Rubin, Targum Shlishi’s director, on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Aryeh5.