Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
One of the things I love getting to do since relocating to Jackson, Mississippi, is teach in our congregation’s Sunday School. We recently had a beautification day at our cemetery, and brought our students to volunteer their time to work in the cemetery. It got me thinking… bringing Jewish kids to a cemetery is a really wonderful (and not creepy, by daylight!) thing to do. Here are my nine reasons why:
1. Instilling A Sense of Time. The concept of time is difficult for young children to understand because “time” is an abstract notion, and their short lives means they do not have a sense of what a decade feels like. Exploring headstones will help them understand the vastness of time, and as they learn more about history will have a better sense of what happened, when it happened, and recognize trends, shifts, and consistencies in things like Jewish names and life spans over time.
2. Connecting the Generations. For many families, especially in the South, ancestors have been buried at the same cemetery for many generations. Allowing children to see all those that have come before them will give them an appreciation for where they fall in their family’s story. This can lead to meaningful conversations about ancestors’ lives. If there is not a large history of family members being buried at the same cemetery that can also lead to conversations about where their family’s roots are, why they are not together, and might lead to a vacation.
3. Creating Community. These facilities do not maintain themselves and provide unique challenges in keeping them safe and beautiful. By letting the children participate in beautification days, they will appreciate the work it takes, and teach them early on that even after death we should care for the deceased both in memory and in more tangible, physical ways.
4. Enhancing Holiday Meaning. Many Jewish holidays and prayers center on the concept of life and death. This is a great time to make those connections and reinforce that although death can be an unfortunate part of our existence it is natural, something you should not fear, is part of our tradition, and reminds us to appreciate life.
5. Reminding Us To Value Life. Speaking of appreciating life: Death can be jarring, but that pain also makes us appreciate what we have. It is important adolescents understand life can end in an instant, that they need to make smart decisions about how they lead their lives, care for their body, show love and appreciation for those around them, and when making decisions think about the consequences of those decisions (both in terms of life/death and quality of life).
6. Learning About the Life Cycle. At the transition from early-childhood to adolescence, children begin to conceptualize death. They understand that life can come to an end and never return and they understand the consequences of that shift. This can be a fearful time and they can often overextend their fear to an unhealthy point. By visiting a cemetery they have the time/space to process those fears, have conversations about life/death, and discuss the lives of those who have passed so they see that we should focus on how they lived not how they died.
7. Talking About Traditions. In Judaism there are a lot of traditions around death, caring for the deceased, and honoring both body and soul. We often focus on traditions accompanying holidays when teaching our students, and don’t spend as much time on traditions around other parts of our existence. This is particularly sad because the traditions around death and caring for the deceased can be beautiful, carry rich meaning, and teach many lessons. It is worthwhile to share these before they are learned through necessity.
8. It’s a Great “Tough Topics” Conversation Starter. Visiting a cemetery gives kids the chance to discuss topics that are considered taboo or things that they do not think about regularly. It demonstrates that you, as a teacher, won’t just focus on “fluffy stuff” but can be there for your students when they want to discuss serious issues. Even if other tough topics don’t come up, learning about Jewish rituals around death, dying, and honoring our people provides the space to learn about their history, the history of where they live, and the history of their people. Children say the darndest things but taking time to see how they perceiving the world and understand life is important. It can also be extremely humorous.
9. Appreciating Beauty. Cemeteries can be some of the most beautiful parts of our cities, but often go unnoticed or underappreciated. This is a great time to show kids a part of their city they may not be aware of or have misconceptions about. Don’t allow their only visit to be during someone’s funeral or on Halloween for adolescent games (oy). Help them see the beauty in a cultivated, honored place for our lost loved ones to rest and be remembered, right in the heart of our communities.