By far the most unusual thing I did this summer was consecrate a new, “green” cemetery on a steep, tree-covered hillside a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Having spent close to a month in Northern California this summer helping our daughter and son-in-law adjust to the birth of twins, I learned that most things in the Bay Area are marketed as “green,” “organic” and “vegan.” Though observant Jews utilize biodegradable “green” caskets in all cemeteries, the cemetery we consecrated requires it of even non-Orthodox burials. All graves at this cemetery must be dug by hand (without the help of mechanized machinery). Gravestones are small, natural boulders (no hewn marble) upon which names and dates can be etched. Lastly, this cemetery has no grass to water, which makes perfect sense in this rain-deprived region. The truth is that “Gan Yarok” (which is the cemetery’s name) is actually brown, due to California’s perennial droughts. Even standing at the top of this hillside of uncut weeds, you’d never guess that it was a cemetery.
What was truly remarkable was the ceremony to consecrate the cemetery. Before there was Shabbos or Torah, there was the Jewish cemetery. Avraham Avinu made sure to purchase property to bury his wife, and he resisted significant pressure to share this burial field with the locals. Though all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim, in death (as in life), Jews march to the beat of their own drummer.
How do we designate a cemetery as Jewish? There is a venerated minhag Yisrael, as attested to by the Kol Bo on Aveilus (3;1;4) and Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the halachic expert in our country in all things related to burial.
Our preparations began even before we arrived at the cemetery, as all 30 participants (which included a minyan of men) had to fast from the morning until the ceremony was complete. After the physical boundaries of the future cemetery were shown to us, the ceremony started out with us reading the first four perakim of Tehillim. Being a steep undeveloped hillside, the cemetery dug out dirt steps for us to ascend and descend the hill. It was a hike in the woods, where we had to be careful going downhill, and huff and puff going uphill.
Starting at the southeast corner of the cemetery, our group walked around the boundaries of the future cemetery seven times. At each corner, the group stopped to say a particular perek of Tehillim (102, 103, 104 and 105). As we walked, we said the same perek (Psalm 91, “Yoshev b’seter”) one says as a casket is carried to its final resting place.
At the end of each “hakafah” we said the seven lines of the Kabbalistic “Ana B’koach” prayer that we say Friday night before Lecha Dodi. Then a participant committed to donate to a charity of his/her choice that is connected to the line that corresponded to that hakafah (i.e., aniyim, Talmud Torah, hachnasat kallah, malbish arumim, beit knesset, pidyon shvuyim, and bikur cholim). This being the Bay Area, someone pledged a donation to the California Bail Reform Movement for pidyon shvuyim!
Sixty chapters of Psalms and over two hours later, our cemetery was consecrated. After a few welcomed cups of cold water, we were on our way to have our vegan, organic break-fasts.
Though I was cynical about the “crunchy granola” San Francisco version of Jewish burial, it brought home a message about life in a particularly powerful way. After our time on this earth, where do we end up? On an unremarkable, weed-covered hillside. As Ashkenazim say in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, we are “Yesodo mei’afar, v’sofo le’afar,” “k’tzitz noveil,” “k’avak poreich.”
As we contemplate our accomplishments and shortcomings during the past year and set our goals and aspirations for the coming year, let us try to put our cutting-edge gadgets, impressive home improvements and luxurious vacations into perspective. What matters in the long run is the difference we make in the lives of our families, our co-workers, friends and communities. The Tehillim we say have a long-lasting impact, as do the steps we take and the tzedakah we give. In the merit of our focusing on things that truly matter, may the Almighty inscribe us in the Book of Life.
By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell
Rabbi Perry Tirschwell is the founding executive director of the Torah Educators Network, whose mission is to provide education and benefits to mechanchim/chot. Tirschwell served for 15 years as the founding head of school of the Katz (formerly Weinbaum) Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, and is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva College, RIETS and the Graduate School of Education of the College of New Rochelle.