Rabbinic Leadership at the Last Rite
Jeremy Kalmanofsky is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and rabbi of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t mean to be morbid, but I love funerals. Over 9 years in the pulpit I have discovered the particular gratifications of helping people say farewell to their loved ones, reflect on their lives, and place their bodies in the earth. Religion is, after all, about living with faith under the gey tzalmavet, the shadow of death; so funerals are important opportunities to shape the spiritual character of Judaism at the nexus points of life and death.
Listen, any daily work can be inane. But through funerals rabbis are granted consistent invitations to be present and intimately involved as people navigate some of the most enormous moments of their lives. I feel honored for those invitations and blessed to have an intense job.
Also, composing eulogies and encouraging mourners to do reminds you that you will die soon enough yourself; this prods you to live better. Eulogies and shivas always remind me, as people share memories, how unpredictably we influence others. You never know what people will remember about others: passing moments, small comments, kind or unkind. Conversations long forgotten by one party sometimes never leave the other party.
Finally, funerals remind you of the power of the rabbi’s role. You really are there to stand still and testify to life’s transcendent order and meaning, even amid emotional chaos. I have an informal congregation, and almost everyone calls me by my first name. But no one yet has ever said: “Jeremy, my mother died.” At these moments, hearing a bereft child or spouse use your title reminds you what spiritual leadership they seek from you.