“It’s a weird thing to say: ‘Judaism, we do death well,’ ” said Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz. “It’s not a great tagline, but it’s true.”
That’s one reason the San Francisco synagogue is one of many Jewish institutions participating in “Reimagine End of Life,” a weeklong series of events on the topic of death and dying, started by San Francisco resident Brad Wolfe.
“I really see this conversation as a way to inspire people to live their lives more fully,” said Wolfe, an Emanu-El member who created the inaugural event in 2016 to investigate the intersection of art, community and end-of-life issues.
More than 150 events are scheduled April 16-22, from lectures about “aging while single” to immersive sound art and ritual experiences, an experiential “one-way-only trip” on “Malaise Airways,” and a straightforward guide to planning for end-of-life directives. There are performances, workshops, even comedy. All have one thing in common: to bring to the forefront the many facets of death and dying, from grief to elation.
“It’s not like I love death,” said Wolfe, who developed the Reimagine concept in response to a call by OpenIDEO, an online platform for problem-solving, seeking ways to change the conversation around end-of-life issues.
A death conference? Who’s going to go to a death conference?
But Wolfe had been thinking about death issues for a long time. Two of his grandparents were survivors of Auschwitz, and their stories made him conscious of the preciousness of life.
“That was the seed, early on, that planted thinking about a conversation on life and death,” he said.
In addition, he lost a close friend to cancer at age 21, a tragedy that inspired him to co-found Sunbeam Foundation, which raises money to support research on rare cancers.
Reimagine, now in its second iteration, is growing. In 2016, some 2,500 people attended 30 events, but Wolfe expects the numbers to triple this time. A New York week has been added in October.
“I actually thought that it would be very morbid,” Wolfe said about the inaugural Reimagine series. “But people’s relationship to it — they bring such a positive spirit!”
In addition to Emanu-El, other Jewish event hosts include the San Francisco, Peninsula and East Bay JCCs, Reboot and S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
Reboot is holding an event called “Death Over Dinner: Jewish Edition” in conjunction with the JCC of San Francisco, while the JCC of the East Bay will host two talks with author Dr. Jessica Zitter and Pastor Corey Kennard about spiritual support for dying patients and racial inequities in end-of-life care.
Cantor Sharon Bernstein of S.F. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav is participating in “Conversation Sabbath,” a project of the San Francisco Interfaith Council that runs April 13-15, the weekend preceding Reimagine week. She invited Dawn Gross, a palliative care physician at UCSF and noted speaker on issues around dying, to join the congregation for Shabbat.
“She’s just magical and amazing,” Bernstein said.
Gross will also join Zitter at Emanu-El for a screening and conversation around the film “Extremis,” which tackles the difficult decisions made in a hospital ICU.
Mintz first became involved after participating in a panel discussion at Reimagine’s inaugural week in 2016.
“Brad called me and said, ‘There’s no rabbi in the opening panel!’ ” she said.
She was so impressed that she decided to involve Emanu-El more extensively in the programming. “At first people were like, a death conference? Who’s going to go to a death conference?”
However, interest was piqued by related Emanu-El programs such as a talk on the science of psychedelics and end-of-life care, an interfaith panel on traditions of death and the afterlife, and a screening of the environmental film “An Inconvenient Sequel.”
Mintz sees the series as fitting for a Jewish setting because of the specific attention Judaism pays to rituals of death and mourning. From the symbolic or real tearing of clothing at a funeral to the shiva period, first-year anniversary memorials and the ritual of Kaddish prayers for departed loved ones, Jewish tradition marks the end of life with focus and respect.
“There’s so much about lifecycle, and so many things about death we do so well,” she said.
Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky, who is leading an event for mourners at the JCCSF, agreed that Judaism has a deep tradition of ways to handle the end of life and contemplate what comes after. “There is a rich body of literature that does talk about Olam HaBa, the world to come, and what happens to the soul,” said Iliinsky, spiritual leader at Rhoda Goldman Plaza as well as an artist and teacher at the JCC.
Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center said it is important to keep a spiritual element in the conference.
“End of life oftentimes can get reduced to a legal narrative around estate planning, or a medical narrative,” said Weiss, who is also a member of the San Francisco Palliative Care Workgroup, which is partnering with Reimagine.
As for Wolfe, a musician, it’s the arts elements of the Reimagine week that perhaps speak to him most strongly. But whether it’s for information, an interactive experience, or just to be present as taboos about death are broken, there’s something in Reimagine for anybody who is willing to learn and talk about a subject that is as difficult as is it inevitable.
“There’s no right way, or one way, to talk about this,” he said.