Sara M. Zober

Anyone who has been near children for any amount of time knows that they ask a lot of questions. So when my grandmother (their great-grandmother) died this summer, I was not surprised that my three children, aged 9, 7 and 5, peppered me with questions. I sat the kids down and answered their questions simply. We spent the next few minutes talking about what would happen, crying, and sharing memories with one another.

A few months later, my husband and I sat with our eldest child at Rockdale Temple as Rabbi Sissy Coran led a family education session about Jewish rituals surrounding death and dying. Our discussions continued even after the lesson. As we talked, all three kids were interested in going to visit the cemetery where their great-grandmother was buried, recognizing it as a way to maintain a connection with her. I also hoped that in taking the kids to the cemetery, we could have a tangible experience to build upon what they were learning in religious school.

Realizing that this kind of visit was a wonderful way to teach our traditions to the next generation, I put on my educator’s hat. As the Director of The Spark School for Experiential Jewish Learning at Northern Hills Synagogue, I am always looking for hands-on ways to engage our students. So in the spring of 2018, we will be taking a whole-school field trip specifically to discuss death and dying. The lesson will start in our congregation’s cemetery in Covedale, which is part of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, an organization that manages almost all of our community’s Jewish cemeteries.

We will bring pockets full of pebbles to leave on the stones, and we’ll make rubbings of Hebrew names and dates to take with us to practice our Hebrew reading. The students and their parents will have an opportunity to share their memories of loved ones and plenty of time and space to ask questions. Afterwards, we will go downtown to the small plot at Chestnut and Central, another JCGC cemetery, to visit the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies. We’ll talk about how our traditions have been maintained and our community has grown since that first cemetery was created in 1821.

For most children, their frame of reference for death is from popular culture, movies, and television. They know very little about their rich Jewish heritage and the wisdom of its mourning customs. Children often perceive cemeteries as creepy or depressing, but this reflects secular culture instead of Jewish thought. Ours is a tradition that respects the dead, including tending to the washing of the body and keeping it company until burial. We do not shy away from the reality of bodily decay or try to prevent it. And for those who are in mourning, we guide them through heavy grief in the presence of community, with rituals for marking the week, month and year after a death.

This is the healthy wisdom we must pass on to our children and remind ourselves we possess. We can access this wisdom with a visit to one of the many cemeteries we have here in Cincinnati. Not only is it a beautiful walk, it can also engender important conversations about family, history and our Jewish tradition.

Author info: Sara Zober is a 5th year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. She serves as the Rabbinic Intern at Northern Hills Synagogue – Congregation B’nai Avraham in Mason, OH, and also as the Director of their religious school.