One of the most important mitzvahs in Judaism is showing respect and honor for the dead.
Julie Tsivia Cohen, a woodworker and carpenter by trade, decided last year to fulfill that mitzvah in a somewhat unconventional way — by making caskets.
“I refer to my approach as going back to basics because I’m returning to the old-school Jewish practice of making caskets simple, pine boxes rather than ornate structures,” said Cohen, a resident of Pleasant Hill.
Cohen, 52, has spent much of her adult life working with wood and constructing things. A member of the carpenter’s union for 10 years, she worked on projects from sports arenas to skyscrapers, and before that she worked in two cabinet shops.
About 18 months ago, having given up most of her commercial work in favor of becoming a craftswoman, she got the idea to give caskets a try. She came up with a design after several conversations with rabbis, and then set up a workshop in her home so she could start making caskets that adhere to halachah (Jewish law). She named her business Gazelle Woodworks.
“[My boxes] are all relatively plain, and I don’t use any animal products or metal,” she explained, also noting that she doesn’t work on them during Shabbat or on Jewish holidays. “They have three holes in the bottom that symbolize how Jews do not discourage the return to the earth, which we get from Genesis 3:19 that states, ‘For you are dust and unto dust you shall return.’ ”
Cohen’s caskets now come in four different shapes, but she originally intended for them all to have the same, undecorated design, representing the traditional belief that all Jews are equal in death. Now, however, she offers buyers the opportunity to attach a Star of David onto the box.
Cohen’s caskets have hit the market recently at four local mortuaries: Sinai Memorial in San Francisco and Lafayette, Gan Yarok in Mill Valley and Daniels Chapel of the Roses in Santa Rosa (which works in cooperation with the Chevra Kadisha of Sonoma County).
Given that most caskets are produced and shipped from far away, Samuel J. Salkin, executive director of the Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha, said he is excited “to offer … a kosher, local, high-quality and handmade casket from a Jewish woman who wants to use her skills in support of a mitzvah.”
Another part of the caskets’ appeal, Salkin added, is that Cohen tries to be as green as possible when producing them.
“I decided not to use any glue, which contains either plastic or animal products,” Cohen said. “My caskets are made entirely with wood and dovetail joinery.” She also recycles whatever waste products accumulate.
Cohen grew up Reform, and after moving to Berkeley in 1989, she started going to monthly minyans at private homes. Shortly thereafter, she joined Congregation Netivot Shalom and started donating her carpentry skills to the Conservative synagogue, mainly by teaching people how to build their own sukkahs.
In addition, then-Rabbi Stuart Kelman commissioned her to design and upholster new shiva stools for the synagogue. During the seven-day period of shiva, mourners are supposed to sit low to or on the floor in order to deprive themselves of luxury.
“Roughly three years later, I was running errands and ran into a congregant,” Cohen said. “He told me that someone had brought my shiva chairs to his house after his father had died and that they were a real source of comfort to him during the shiva week … It was an unforgettable moment for me. It was just this object that I’d made, and typically you don’t know much about what happens to [something] after you’re done. But when you get a story like this about it, the object becomes much more meaningful.”
That encounter was one of Cohen’s main inspirations for starting her line of caskets: It showed her how much she wanted to do work that could have a profound
effect on a person’s life.
Although Cohen — whose husband, Ken, has a long list of ties to the Jewish community, including being an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University — admitted that she is still trying to perfect the process of building each casket, overall she said she has very little to complain about.
“I’ve been so pleased at the positive reception and interest,” she said, “because it tells me that I might have the right idea here.”
Julie Tsivia Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.