Classes demystify Jewish customs around death

We know how to download music and we know how to get food delivered with the swipe of a finger on a smartphone — but we don’t know what to do when a loved one dies.

“Death is a natural part of life and we Jews actually are very good at it,” said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. Judaism has “a compassionate process and amazing traditions that are worth learning,” he added.

Sam Salkin

But how many people know the process? The traditions? Those are things “we need to talk about,” Wolf-Prusan said.

To that end, three local Jewish institutions have come together to organize “Walking in the Valley of the Shadow — And Not Being Afraid,” a series of six classes, each being offered at five Bay Area locations.

Topics include Jewish laws and customs regarding dying, what tradition says about mourning and grief, shiva etiquette, Jewish perspective on the afterlife, and ethical dilemmas such as extending life, organ donation, genetic testing and autopsies.

The Jewish entities co-sponsoring the series are Lehrhaus Judaica, Sinai Memorial Chapel and the Gamliel Institute, a Berkeley-based education center that concentrates on Jewish end-of-life practices.

“The more traditional ways of passing down information about the Jewish way of death and dying have been disrupted,” said Wolf-Prusan, chief program officer and senior educator at Lehrhaus, also based in Berkeley. “We all want to contribute to the community, and that’s the point of sponsoring this course.”

The lack of knowledge is definitely real. For example, Sinai Memorial Chapel, which has locations in San Francisco, Lafayette and Redwood City, averages one call every other day from somebody confused about death procedures.

“People just don’t know this stuff,” said Edna Stewart, a staff member at the Gamliel Institute. “They know their mother wants a Jewish burial, but they don’t know what that is.” 

Edna Stewart

Organizers of the series said that because just about everyone eventually has to deal with a relative or friend dying, the classes are for people in their 20s and 30s as well as older folks. “We also welcome people from Israel and the former Soviet Union, people who are Jewish by choice and interfaith families who may not be familiar with our customs,” Wolf-Prusan said.

The classes, which began in March, will continue through August 21, and participants can attend one or more (in any order). Each class lasts 90 minutes and includes a discussion period. All the instructors are experienced in the field and the approach is trans-denominational. Registration is $10 per session.

Planning ahead for one’s own death — including specifying wishes in legal documents so family members don’t have to guess — is “the best last thing you can do for your loved ones,” said Stewart, a retired nurse. “Planning ahead is in line with the commandment that speaks against putting a stumbling block before the blind.”

The classes are being held at the Jewish Community Library (San Francisco), Osher Marin JCC (San Rafael), Congregation B’nai Tikvah (Walnut Creek), Congregation Netivot Shalom (Berkeley) and Addison-Penzak JCC (Los Gatos).

Harry Wittenberg of Orinda attended a class at B’nai Tikvah earlier this month. “It was fascinating,” he said. “It focused on Jewish thought, on how we deal with our sense of mortality and with the deaths of others, and also on reincarnation and hell, and our interpretations of these concepts. I learned things I didn’t know.”

B’nai Tikvah Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman said she is pleased her synagogue is one of the five venues because she often is approached with questions about Jewish attitudes, beliefs and practices around death, mourning and the afterlife.

“It’s important to me that we can offer a space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing vulnerable stories,” Gutterman said. “These stories are part of the larger Jewish story.”

Organizers said registration for the series has exceeded expectations and feedback has been positive. Stewart said other venues already are asking to serve as hosts for a second series in the fall.

“Too often, people think they want to avoid this topic,” Stewart said. “Yet once they start talking about it, they can’t stop.”

“Walking in the Valley of the Shadow — And Not Being Afraid.” Through Aug. 21 at five Bay Area locations. $10 per session. or (510) 845-6420

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.