By David Katznelson
I learned about how Jews deal with death during the year my father observed his father’s passing. That summer, I would pick my dad up from work and bring him to the minyan at Beth Sholom, where he would say Kaddish for his dad. During our rides, I learned about our death rule book from burial and mourning to remembrance, and how community plays such a significant part to the mourner. I learned how after a year of mourning, there is a call to action to the mourner to let go of the pain and regain a semblance of a normal, if not forever altered, life.
The Jewish tradition has remarkable set of rituals when it comes to observing life’s big moments, from birth to adulthood to marriage to death. Arguably, it is those big moments that bind people to our century-old traditions because of the logic and grace and caring processes that underlie them.
There is a 21st century reality that medicine can keep us alive forever. Machines can keep our blood moving, keep our brain alive even after everything else has shut down, after how we define conscious life is done. This modern phenomenon brings a big, difficult question to each and every one of us: how do we want to spend the last years of life?
My brother Larry Katznelson, MD, associate dean of graduate medical education at Stanford University, said, “This is a critical topic that often gets downplayed, if not outright ignored. It is important that each of us considers the path of our lives, how we want to live out our days, what kind of medical care we want as the end comes, and how we want to engage family and friends in this journey.”
This big life moment, the end-of-life experience, is something that our Jewish tradition does not have easy answers for or rituals around. How do we want to die? What does death means to us? When death comes, what will we want to have accomplished? What will we want to have said? What do we want our last days and funeral to look like? And, do we know the wishes of our loved ones? These questions fit in to a big, important conversation that Americans are not having.
Enter Death Over Dinner – Jewish Edition, a project designed by Reboot to disarm this historically taboo topic and make the conversation as welcoming as breaking bread. It creates an invitation to call friends, family and neighbors to the table to talk about those things that matter to us most and guides a conversation through a framework created by Jewish and Jew-ish scholars, theologians, palliative care experts, poets and rabbis who have been threading Jewish end-of-life wisdom into their teachings for centuries. The project is a collaboration by Reboot with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Michael Hebb, the founder of the Death Over Dinner initiative, with an extensive team of advisors.
Death Over Dinner – Jewish Edition integrates seamlessly into a larger cultural movement of people in their 20’s and 30’s embracing the idea that speaking honestly and openly about death during the vibrancy of their lives inspires them to live with more purpose and meaning, which is a fundamental Jewish value. The project connects with a population that would often otherwise feel alienated from traditional Jewish life by reaching them where they are as digital natives.
Fundamentally, for those for whom death is a mere concept, Death Over Dinner – Jewish Edition delivers a transformative experience through a Jewish lens. When death ultimately and inevitably touches their lives, participants will have the resources, guidance and cultural permission to engage in Jewish practice.The website includes a DIY toolkit with a conversation deck, program ideas and best practices, and marketing resources for organizations who want to join the conversation. Synagogues, JCCs and Jewish seminaries are among those who have partnered and tested these tools around the country.
About Reboot: Reboot affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own. Inspired by Jewish ritual and embracing the arts, humor, food, philosophy, and social justice, we produce creative projects that spark the interest of young Jews and the larger community. Among our productions are events, exhibitions, recordings, books, films, DIY activity toolkits, and apps. Since our inception, 575 network members, over 1,250 community organization partners, and hundreds of thousands of people have looked to Reboot to rekindle connections and re-imagine Jewish lives full of meaning, creativity, and joy. rebooters.net
Reach us at [email protected].
David Katznelson is Executive Director of Reboot.
Death Over Dinner – Jewish Edition is generously supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco and Diane & Guilford Glazer Philanthropies as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Righteous Person’s Foundation and The Joyce and Irving Goldman Foundation.