Not in grief, but in community: Ahavas Achim holds powerful genizah burial

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Not in grief, but in community: Ahavas Achim holds powerful genizah burial

On a beautiful Sunday morning in August, Rabbi Alex Matthews stood over a freshly dug grave full of books.

The Amesbury-based rabbi had presided over a dozen-plus funerals before then, but this one was different. He was not wearing a suit. He was not grieving. And, of course, there was no body in the grave before him. No, Matthews was not there to hold a funeral; he was there to bury genizah items.

“Genizah literally means a ‘hidden place,’ ” said Matthews. He’s been the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport for four years, and was just ordained into the rabbinate in June. “Genizah, in the most literal sense, is just ‘safe storage,’ ” he explained. “The way I’ve been referring to it is ‘the burial of genizahitems.’ ”

Traditionally, Jews are prohibited from throwing away or destroying holy items or texts with G-d’s name, both as a show of respect to their holy status and to the divine. A genizahis where these items are stored until they can be buried, a practice derived from Maimonides’ instruction to bury Torah scrolls.

When Matthews first took on his leadership role at Ahavas Achim, he spent some time exploring the 125-year-old synagogue. He would open drawers and find bags of printed photocopies of Jewish texts; open closets and find stacks of machzors that had been replaced with more modern editions; discover old pairs of tefilin and talises under the bima, and water-stained siddurim in the storage space beneath the arc.

“Between all of these things … it felt time to do something proactive, rather than just keep stashing books in every bookshelf and nook and cranny,” Matthews said.
A need, a project

Luckily enough, a group of nine adult bnei mitzvah students at Ahavas Achim happened to be in search of a project. “Typically, when you’re preparing for bnei mitzvah, you do a mitzvah,” said Leslie Kalfel, a member of the group. “We decided that we wanted to do something for the synagogue, and so we asked Alex what was needed.”

This was around eight months ago. Matthews told them about the genizah materials he’d found. Together, they decided to gather what was in the shul and ritually bury the items. The adult bnei mitzvahs sorted through what was there, took pictures of the nameplates that were in some of the books to keep the names of those who had donated them, and eventually, solicited items from the community as well.

For Susan Mandel, another member of the bnei mitzvah group, this turned out to be more of an emotional task than she’d expected. She and her husband moved from Sudbury to Newburyport six years ago, and they had “genizah’d,” when they moved. She figured they had nothing more to add to the Ahavas Achim collection.

But her husband had other ideas, and he unearthed a bag that was filled with dozens of old haggadahs. It had been years since they had used those books on Passover, but when they had, the haggaddahs had been a staple of their seders.
“My husband’s suggestion was that we’d really moved on from a very old traditional haggadah to something a lot more modern,” she said. “And that those hagaddahs should go in the genizah

She was surprised by how hard it was to agree. Seeing the books brought up the memories of the people they had celebrated with, some of whom have since passed. It took her a deep breath before agreeing with her husband, and putting the books in the genizah.

“It was seeing a lot of faces pass before me of people who were a really big part of our lives,” she said, audibly emotional. “Our Jewish lives.”

And yet, when asked if the genizah ceremony felt like a funeral, Mandel laughed. “No,” she said, “The service that Alex created, it didn’t feel like a funeral service.”

Matthews did, in fact, create the service – amazingly, there is not one explicitly prescribed in Jewish law. Matthews has been involved in Jewish institutions his whole life, encountered many genizah, and still, he said, “I had never seen or heard of anyone actually burying them.”

So he got to Googling, and came up with the impression that when people do bury genizah materials, they tend to construct the ceremony that they want. And so he did the same, though not without some difficulty. “It was really hard to find vocabulary to talk about this with, because you don’t want to talk about disposing of items, you don’t want to talk about unwanted items,” Matthews said. “I tried my best to be sensitive around that.”
A proper burial

On the morning of the burial, at 8:30 a.m., Matthews brought to the gravesite the 18 boxes that the adult bnei mitzvahs had packed down from the chapel at Newburyport Hebrew Cemetery, where they were stored. The cemetery – largely via the coordination of Michael Pearlman, CAA member and the cemetery association’s president – had donated a plot beside two other genizah sites, and helped ensure that the grave was dug for the event.

More congregants arrived around 9 a.m. Matthews opened the ceremony with a Marge Piercy poem, “Meditation Before Reading the Torah,” followed by an excerpt from Psalm 27, Achat Sha’alti, which is sung in services during the month of Elul. Then he addressed the group. There were about two dozen people there in total.

“This is not quite a funeral and not quite what we think of as a celebration of life,” he said, in recalling the day. “It’s somewhere in between. It is us trying to create a place of respect and appreciation for these books and ritual objects that have played a really important role in our communal and personal Jewish lives. We are trying to do our best to bring them into the next stage of their journey.”

He opened up space to hear reflections from the crowd, and then recited El Malei Rachamim, the traditional prayer sung at funerals (though Matthews found a version specifically for genizah burial). They sang Shlomo Carlebach’s “Return Again,” and the group took turns filling the grave.

“When we were burying the books, we used the back of the shovel first, to show it’s a task we don’t want [to do],” Leah Tarkan explained. Tarkan, 12, was there with her dad, and is currently preparing for her bat mitzvah. She said she was proud to be there; coming to the genizahceremony was a way for her to engage with Jewish ritual in preparation for her bat mitzvah, just as preparing the genizah materials was for the adult bnei mitzvahs, too.

“This felt like we were retiring these precious objects and making room for the present and the future,” said Kalfel. “I like the idea that we really care about things that are precious, as well as each other.”

The group concluded the service with the Mourner’s Kaddish.

“I think there was something very universal about this,” Matthews said. “This was really about our own communal experience, and it was really about for each individual, ‘how am I taking this in and experiencing it.’”

It was lovely out: 75 degrees and sunny. The cemetery was quiet. As one, the small group gathered around the grave full of books, and together, in honor of the items that had shaped their communal Jewish lives, they said goodbye.

 

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