Exterior of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco
Exterior of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco

How my internship at a Jewish funeral home changed me

The first death in my family that I remember came when I was 15, in the fall of my sophomore year of high school.

It came and went so fast that I never got a chance to come to terms with it. I focused so much on the sheer shock of losing my grandfather that I did not stop to reflect.

Our tradition is meant to support us in moments of adversity, but I did not know where to begin. Without understanding how to respond to death, I felt lost. That sense of disorientation has never quite left me.

Six years later, working as an intern this summer at Sinai Memorial Chapel, a Jewish funeral home, it amazes me how close I am to death every day. I take my lunch break with a few feet (and a wall) between me and corpses.

Mortality feels real to me in ways that it never did before.

And the more real it has become, the more questions I’ve formulated, the less I’ve suppressed the subject, the more I’ve seen it as another part of existence.

But accepting the fact of death provides little comfort and few answers.

It is a cliche of Jewish thought to say that we ask many questions. These questions very seldom receive complete answers, but we ask them anyway, because they are too pressing to ignore.

This spirit of mind led me to my boss Sam Salkin’s self-published 2018 book, “Reflections on Jewish Death and Mourning.” a collection of 23 essays by contemporary Jewish thinkers, many of them in the Bay Area. Reading it helped me put words to the issues I was already grappling with.

Mortality feels real to me in ways that it never did before.

A summary of the many different ideas the book raises would not do each essay justice. I was pleased to find that other Jews have struggled with the same questions I have often felt about death.

Drawing on a wide variety of experience in the Jewish professional world, secular life and family experiences, the authors call attention to new perspectives and old traditions alike. I came away from the book reeling with thoughts — if not answers, certainly more ways to relate to mortality than I ever had before. The sheer variety of approaches the book takes impresses me. No matter how you understand death, “Reflections offers a new way to think about it.

As I read about Jewish practices like tahara, the ritual cleansing of a body, and k’vurah, the symbolic placement of earth over a grave by mourners, I thought back to my own experiences with death.

Memories I’d suppressed flooded back to me. My grandfather’s death, long an inaccessible haze, began to seem less remote. I felt, for the first time since the events themselves, a sense of connection, a through line between my own life and my tradition.

In the practices prescribed for any Jewish funeral or burial, I recognized my own experience. It no longer felt so isolated. I had a vocabulary of memories and ideas with which I could understand what I have often tried to overlook.

I cannot make much more sense of his death, or anyone else’s, now than I could when they died. But I do see a bigger picture than I did before.

Working within the routines of Jewish mourning this summer has given me a broader perspective, where one death is not an isolated event but another tile in the chaotic, beautiful mosaic of our communities.

I see all the buildup to a death, all the fallout. I’ve looked through the archives of death records for people who died years or decades ago. They don’t go away.

One day when I was commuting home on Caltrain, the conductor said somebody died on the tracks in Burlingame. Other passengers complained about the delays, but all I could think was how this large sliver of the world did, in fact, stop for an hour on a Monday.

We’re all connected. Death is one more part of that connection. A scary part, and an absurd one, but a part of it nonetheless.

Death is messy. It doesn’t have a miracle cure or magic solution. But Jews have thought about it for thousands of years, are still thinking about it, and always will be, in uncountable, beautiful ways, and I find comfort in that.

Jacob Isaacs
Jacob Isaacs

Jacob Isaacs, a resident of San Jose, is an English major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This summer, he worked as a Kohn intern at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco.