By Harriet P. Gross
This week: A tale of two rabbis. One has been very much in the national news these past few weeks because of his role following December’s horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The other has hit no headlines that I know of except in his own state, but for us as Jews, that may be quite enough. Let’s take a look …
Shaul Praver has led Adath Israel, a congregation of maybe 100 families living in and around Newtown, Conn., for some 11 quiet years. Then, suddenly, he received a good deal of publicity as the rabbi who officiated at the funeral of Noah Pozner, youngest of all the 26 massacre victims.
(Has this occurred to you? One of those 26 innocents was a Jew. We Jews do not make up one in every 26 Americans, not by a long shot. But we often seem to be represented far beyond our numbers in many aspects of our country’s life. I guess this is just another such case. We are indeed everywhere, not just in the big cities, but in our nation’s tiny towns, too.)
I didn’t see much about the rabbi in our local press, but Cara Buckley’s sensitive New York Times story was reprinted in a few other major general circulation papers. When Praver arrived, along with all the other local clergy, at the firehouse, he saw Noah’s mother among the half-mad group of parents who were receiving the news that their children were no longer among the living. The only one he knew. He had bar mitzvahed her son. He had taught her older daughter. What could he do?
“He walked up to her, held her hand, laid consoling arms around her shoulders,” Buckley wrote. When he did speak, his words were what he called “spiritual morphine.” Noah had left this world physically, but his soul lived on. “She found consolation in the idea that we all come from God; death is just a transformation. Noah wasn’t lost.” Then “We were able to leave the room and talk about making arrangements for the memorial service and the shiva.”
Her boy was buried in the plain wooden casket mandated by our faith, marked only by a plain wooden Star of David. Then Rabbi Praver, Mrs. Pozner and her family joined the rest of their community in the hard work of moving on.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman had a different task, although funeral matters were also at its heart. He went to federal court in Harrisburg to sue the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on behalf of certain rights for Orthodox Jews, Quakers, Muslims and some other religious minorities. The State Board of Funeral Directors had demanded that licensed funeral directors oversee all funerals and burials. In December, there was a settlement agreement clarifying that Pennsylvania law has always permitted religious, non-profit last rites without the necessity of for-profit funeral directors.
Late in 2009, Rabbi Wasserman and his local chevra kadishah began presiding over funerals without the presence of funeral directors, whose organization soon alleged that he was “illegally engaging” in their business. A 28-month investigation followed, and the recent settlement was in the rabbi’s favor.
“For us as religious Jews,” he said, “death is not thought of as the end of life, but rather as a part of life … death is more than just a sad event; it becomes a moment to strengthen the important elements of life. Shared responsibility can overcome feelings of despair …
“ … Over time, the funeral industry was able to displace the faith community in making arrangements, [but] for years I have preached a return to our traditions … ”
And, as a result of the recent settlement, what is now guaranteed is for faith communities like Orthodox Jews “ … to engage independently when their loved ones die, to remember them and care for their funerals and burials with dignity, in a content that is not driven by profit or commercialism. We have been guaranteed the opportunity to make the very difficult moment of death a time to appreciate life … William Penn would be proud.”
I don’t know either of these two rabbis personally, although Wasserman is today’s spiritual leader of Pittsburgh’s venerable Congregation Shaare Torah, the synagogue in which I grew up. And I hear comforting echoes of his words: “Death is not thought of as the end of life, but rather an essential part of life,” in the words of Rabbi Praver to Mrs. Pozner in Newtown: “Noah has physically left this world, but he is not lost to you because his soul lives on.”
And our Judaism lives on.