By Samuel G. Freedman
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Two yellow buses pulled away from Yeshiva High School here with a couple of class periods still left and the 77 seniors aboard giddy with the words “field trip.” They texted. They posed for selfies. They sent up clouds of chatter about weekend plans.
Then, less than a half-hour later, they walked into a cool, tiled room at the Gutterman Warheit Memorial Chapel and stared at the pine coffins and the inclined metal table used for cleaning a corpse.
“I thought I was cool about death,” one girl whispered to a classmate. “But this ——”
“This” meant more than the contents of the room, which is used at the Jewish funeral home for the body-washing ritual called tahara. It connoted the entire mini-course that she, along with the rest of Yeshiva High School’s graduating class, is taking about the Judaic practices and traditions surrounding death, dying and grief.
Few subjects run more powerfully counter to an American teenager’s innate sense of immortality than a confrontation with the reality of life’s end. The study of death became more common at the college level with the publication of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s influential book, “On Death and Dying,” in 1969. But it is rare that the subject is discussed at the high school level, particularly with an approach that includes fairly explicit instruction in caring for a cadaver.
“As a senior, you’re thinking about going to college, and as a teenager you have this feeling of invincibility,” Daniel Feldan, 17, said the morning after the visit to the funeral home on Tuesday. “I’ve never had that other feeling — of mortality, that life might end soon.”
Bailey Frohlich, also 17, nodded at hearing her classmate’s words. “It’s given us a reality check,” she said. “For us, it’s usually about college and friends and extracurriculars. You don’t focus on the grittier things. But even if you don’t have a personal connection to death, thank God, it affects the whole community.”
The 10-hour, eight-session course, titled “The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Final Passage,” aims for sensitivity even as it provokes a certain degree of shock. Besides going to the funeral home, where they received detailed explanations of washing and dressing a corpse, the students have classroom lessons on topics including the history of the Jewish burial societies known as chevra kadisha, the Talmudic foundations of end-of-life practices, and issues involving autopsy and organ donation.
“When we started the program, there was a lot of hesitation and curiosity at the same time,” said Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, 45, the yeshiva’s head of school. “Jewish tradition for dealing with burial and the process of tahara is not that well known. Even for a lot of well-educated Jews, the chevra kadisha is like a secret society. But once you start talking about the values involved or the practical aspects, there’s a fascination.”
The program at Yeshiva High School began with Rochel U. Berman, a 79-year-old author and a former nursing home worker who moved near the school 13 years ago. Her well-regarded book on Jewish burial rituals, “Dignity Beyond Death,” was published in 2005. Over the years she lived in South Florida and the New York metropolitan area, and she served as a chevra kadisha volunteer in both places, preparing the bodies of about 1,000 women and girls, from centenarians who simply wore out to an 18-month-old baby felled by cancer.
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