Why Cemeteries Are My Favorite Educational Spaces
Dear Friends, I have a confession to make. When other educators talk about their favorite educational environments [campfires, Shabbat dinners, DIY escape rooms, not to mention classrooms] I tend to hang back because I’m pretty sure people will think my answer is crazy. But I’m ready to reveal all to you here:
I LOVE CEMETERIES AS EDUCATIONAL ENVIRONMENTS.
Actually, it started with me loving cemeteries in general. As I’m sure has been made clear by now, I’m an unrepentant nerd, and as a kid that manifested in a deep love of history. Historical fiction was my genre of choice from a young age, and as a thirteen year old on my first trip to England with my grandmother, I came fully equipped with a list of the tombs of kings and queens that I was determined to see. With her as my enabler, we set off on our quest, and it cemented in me a love of cemeteries as historical markers, peaceful environments, and the keepers of fascinating stories.
So what makes a cemetery an ideal Jewish educational environment? It has it all!
History - Wandering through a cemetery, you can’t help but tap into history. Being surrounded by a sea of birthdates and death dates, and being able to witness the impact of history - from weathered, faded stones, to changes in presentation - cemeteries are perfect spaces to engage in historical storytelling and/or research. What was happening during the time period when these people lived? What events might they have been witness to? What can we learn about them by knowing about their contexts?
Symbolism - Jewish cemeteries are full of symbols, and one of my favorite things to do is to send learners on scavenger hunts. They can either pick one headstone and figure out everything they can tell about a person from it - were they kohanim? Is their profession somehow represented [see below]? Are there other things we can infer about them from how they’re memorialized? Or, alternatively, they can be sent out to find stones that meet various criteria - a kohen, a levi, a doctor, a rabbi and to figure out from symbols + other clues how to know which person was which.
Family - A huge part of my comfort with cemeteries, spaces that many people aren’t naturally drawn to, came from family excursions to ‘visit’ ancestors, whether it was my great-great-grandparents each time we went to Israel, or my beloved late grandfather nearby in New York. Cemeteries can be great parts of family education, particularly as it pertains to heritage studies. What would it look like for every family to go to a cemetery that has personal meaning for them, and for the students to tell the stories of those experiences?
Ritual - Jewish rituals around death, mourning, and remembrance are fascinating! This is a great way to get experiential and to explore the rules and origins of who is a mourner, when Jews traditionally visit cemeteries, and the restrictions associated around doing so, and what it means to honor the dead from a Jewish perspective.
Mitzvah - There are so many mitzvot that can be done in a cemetery. From comforting the mourner, to cleaning up neglected areas, to restoration if needed, there’s no limit to the hands-on work that these spaces can provide.
Hebrew - In older cemeteries, where the dates themselves are written out in Hebrew letters, this is an awesome challenge for learners to figure out. Otherwise, sounding out the names and finding ones that match can be a great way of building personal connections among the stones.