Across the country, young Jews are getting together to talk—about death.
Five years ago, Death Over Dinner launched as an online platform facilitating guided conversations around death and dying. Prospective hosts fill out an online questionnaire about why they want to participate, and choose inspirational readings, video clips, or audio recordings to present to the guests. Then they receive an email helping to plan the evening, complete with prompts for guided discussion, and “homework” for the guests.
A dinner party about death may not sound like a hot ticket for young people, but it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that the program has been a success, holding thousands of events around the world. A 2017 article titled “Can Millennials Talk About Death?” by Ph.D. candidate Nathan Gerard, in the Journal of Health Administration Education, noted that millennials crave meaning, and are more than ready to dive into tough topics—including death.
Mourning and loss have specific rituals for Jews that might not always translate across the dinner table. So two years ago, the Jewish organizations Reboot and IKAR collaborated with Death Over Dinner to create a Jewish version of the evening, called Death Over Dinner, Jewish Edition.
“Jewish Edition convenes groups of Jewish people around dinner tables to have conversations about our relationship to end-of-life issues and explore mortality framed by Jewish text and philosophies,” explained Tanya Schevitz, Reboot’s spokesperson. “The Jewish tradition creates powerful frameworks around life events like birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death, but around the latter, most of our tradition focuses on post-death ‘issues.’ With modern medicine having the ability to dictate an end-of-life path, it is more crucial than ever to have the space for a conversation with friends and loved ones around desired end-of-life experiences.”
At a typical Death Over Dinner gathering, guests would arrive at the host’s house, split up into tables of six or eight, and eat a meal ranging from plated service to family style. The host would introduce the topic, and lead the discussion with minimal to meaningful facilitation, according to their choice. Prompts might lead them to speak about their own connection to death and dying, about the way mortality shapes their life, their own vision on how they’d like to die, and more. “There are definitely no right answers,” Schevitz said. “This is definitely much more about feelings and your own philosophy and belief of how you would like to live your life and how you want to approach death.” At the end of a meal, participants can be given “homework” tasks and food for thought through the website or other sources, but it’s optional. “The only thing we suggest is that people come open to talking or even just open to listening if they don’t want to share themselves,” Schevitz added.
For Jewish Edition, the prompts and framework were built with the help of rabbis, theologians, and other Jewish experts, who incorporated guidance from Jewish text and beliefs.
To the millennial Jewish crowd, Schevitz said, Death Over Dinner provides the whole package: “Every aspect gives this ‘tools not rules’ millennial generation the agency to make active choices further personalizing their Jewish experience. The project reaches them where they are and on their own terms: as digital natives, at their dinner tables, with friends and family, on social media, where people share their thoughts and profound experiences; and through live events, such as panel discussions, large group dinners.”
Death Over Dinner isn’t the only place for young Jews to talk to each other about these subjects. Another initiative enabling hosts to lead death-related discussions over food, called The Dinner Party, is aimed at 20- and 30-somethings dealing with loss of a loved one. Launched in 2010, it currently runs events in 100 cities around the world, where a trained facilitator hosts groups of people who were matched by their location and loss experience. In Dinner Party’s case, the dinners act not only as fertile grounds for discussion, but also unofficial support groups for those who have experienced loss in their loved ones in their 20s and 30s, with trained facilitators leading communal potluck meals. The Dinner Party wasn’t originally Jewish, but recently started running a series of kosher tables in New York City, by popular demand.
“Losing my mother at the age of 27 was a reentry point into my Jewish identity and in many ways helped hosting at Dinner Party and joining,” said Becca Bernstein, a host turned community director. “I was grateful to have rituals like shiva, and friends who attended my mom’s funeral said they want to be Jewish when they witnessed our relationship with grief. This inspires me to do my best work with Dinner Party.” Bernstein, too, acknowledges the need to meet the young audiences where they roam—online—in order to bring them face to face, in a much-needed way for discussions of such complexity. “I find that technology is a beautiful thing, but it can get in the way of us sitting down and having experiences,” she said. “People are craving community. We just have to be more intentional than before to gather together.”
Another conversation around death, in the meantime, recently turned into a hardcover book: Modern Loss, by Jewish authors Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, was published this past January, following a popular website and online community. In it, the two 30-something authors have collected essays and anecdotes aimed at readers who have had to confront grieving and loss at the peak of their professional and personal lives. One section is dedicated to work life after loss; others tackle small talk after loss and “griefspeak,” and, most compellingly, a group of essays describes the ridiculous, funny, and unexpected ways in which death of a loved one manifests itself in the digital world. Two essays, by Elisa Albert and Haley Tanner, touch upon the shiva ritual. Just like Kaddish or Death Over Dinner, they can offer young Jews, secular or not, invitations to grapple with death in a “modern” way; with awareness, directly, on their own terms, alone in their car or at a table brimming with understanding.
Similar discussions are happening in the digital world, too. Rabbi Ariana Katz started a podcast centered around death in 2016; Kaddish was named after the Jewish prayer recited by mourners. Sponsored by a grant from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, it ran for a year. In the podcast’s episodes, Katz covered mourning and loss from a variety of angles, always with Judaism in mind but occasionally with an unorthodox twist. “In one episode we talked about the burial society, chevra kadisha, and transgender people receiving tahara, lovingly and with respect,” she recalled. “Another was about reproductive loss—in the Jewish tradition, [a way] to mourn a lost pregnancy or inability to conceive is lacking. Another time we discussed how do apply the Jewish tradition, which privileges genetic connections, to chosen families.”
The podcast, Katz attests, allowed for a new sense of intimacy around the subject. “We the Jews are best at mourning,” she said. “We have a formula, how a mourner should move through the process, step by step, but it’s not necessarily invested in how one feels. The experience of the podcast is deeply personal. We’d get a lot of emails from listeners who wanted to be heard, and I’d spend an hour on the phone with each one, talking about their grieving process.”
The medium itself was flexible enough to include new vignettes, like playing music, or reciting poetry. Young listeners tuned in. “Youth culture exists across the world, in the American Jewish context, too,” Katz said. “Because of it, people are afraid of talking about death and dying, but young people are also experiencing death and mortality, and think how their identity intersects with these questions. The podcast was a good opportunity to do that; young people are criticized for being too on-demand or a la carte, but I was happy to give them the choice to connect to these topics.”
The online broadcast also had the effect of bringing people together in real life.
“We think of technology as something passive, but the listeners of Kaddish were very active, it was a very whole experience,” Katz said. When she was looking into starting a congregation, she started talking to people and realized many of them knew her work through Kaddish. “A big number of listeners were in Baltimore, so it was a natural place for a congregation,” she said. “It was an immediate intimacy, because the ways I talk about death, grief, and sickness helped establish trust. Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, was founded in 2017 and Katz became a full-time rabbi there in 2018. “It’s very sweet to build community that you started online,” she said, noting that in working with her congregation, she has taken the lessons of her podcast: “To tell your story, to share, and to show up in the times of grief.”
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.