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A Jewish Way to Remember

The first Jewish sacred space to commemorate miscarriages, abortions, and stillbirths

Marjorie Ingall
July 22, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

At the end of February—a lifetime ago—I visited the Memory Garden in Colma, just outside San Francisco. Colma is a town unlike any other. Its 2-square-mile area contains 17 cemeteries—a million dead inhabitants for its 1,500 living ones. Hence its nickname, “The City of the Silent.” Four of the cemeteries are Jewish; Wyatt Earp (whose wife, Josephine Marcus, was Jewish) and Levi Strauss are buried here.

And now, the Memory Garden is the first Jewish site commemorating miscarriages, abortions, and neonatal deaths.

In Japan, stone Jizo statues are a common sight—chubby little red-capped figures representing fetuses never born. They have no equivalent in American or Jewish tradition. Halacha, Jewish law, specifically minimizes pregnancy loss; until a baby has lived 30 days, it’s not considered a full-fledged person. A fetus or stillbirth is supposed to be buried in an unmarked grave. Lav nefesh hu, Rashi wrote: It is not a soul.

But grief persists. The Memory Garden at Eternal Home Cemetery, operated by Sinai Memorial Chapel, was designed to provide a Jewish way to mourn and remember. Back in February it was still a work in progress, its stone bones jutting from bare dirt; projecting the landscape architect’s renderings into virtual reality required a bit of imagination. But in a few months, the desert would bloom. There would be a grassy green slope dotted with wide-set benches. Downhill would lead to a clearing, where a wide cement circle inset with the names of the Hebrew and Gregorian months would enclose a bed of exuberant native plants and flowers. The plantings would represent the seasons: bursts of rusty pinkish-red sedum for fall, paperwhites and saucer magnolia for winter, coral bells and California poppies for spring, yarrow and sea lavender for summer. A channel of water would encircle it all. In an act reminiscent of the Jewish tradition of placing stones on graves, visitors would be able to pick pebbles out of the water to hold and put back or to set down in a meaningful spot. Nearby, a circular grove of redwoods—still small, but growing—would provide a place of reflection or a spot for a private ceremony. Leading to the site would be stone stairs of different heights and widths (a reminder, perhaps, that everyone’s approach to grief is different, that a journey can be halting and uneven, but that all paths are valid). A no-mow meadow of fescue grass would surround the whole, providing a feeling of wildness and peace, peace and wildness.

The $1.2 million project was supposed to have its opening ceremony in May. But COVID-19, and California’s ban on mass gatherings, put the kibosh on that. The garden has quietly opened to individual visitors, but the dedication will have to wait. Somehow that seems fitting for a site devoted to the most private of losses.

It also feels like a good time to write a quiet piece about bereavement. We’re squarely situated in the Three Weeks, the Jewish time of quiet grief that starts on the 17th day of Tammuz and ends on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of communal mourning.

The garden is the brainchild of Abby Porth and Debbie Findling, two very determined San Francisco women. (“It all starts with Abby,” Debbie told me in an interview. “And it all finishes with Debbie,” Abby said immediately afterward.) Porth was the initial visionary, and Findling is the get-it-done powerhouse.

Both experienced pregnancy loss and infertility. Porth was in her second trimester with her second child when she started miscarrying; she spent three days bleeding at home before finishing the process in the hospital. When she and her husband got back to the house, they had to tell her preschool-age son that he wasn’t getting a little brother after all. “My experience was a medical one—radiologists, surgeons—and then you go home to pick up the pieces of your heart,” she said. “I was fortunate to have a Jewish community at Congregation Emanu-El. [Rabbi] Sydney [Mintz] called, people dropped off food. But I was left with this overwhelming sense that what my body was supposed to know how to do wasn’t available to me. I went home not only without a baby in my hands, but with no tangible evidence that this had been real. I felt this aching need to have a Jewish reaction, a Jewish response, in my grief.”

Findling had 11 miscarriages and a stillbirth. The treatment she received in the hospital is part of why she wanted to create the garden, along with a toolkit for doctors, health care professionals, Jewish communal professionals and the Jewish laity. “After my stillbirth, I was visited by a nurse and a chaplain who told me how important it was to name the baby and to have a funeral,” she said. “We don’t do that in Judaism. They took handprints and footprints and gave them to me. That’s not k’vod ha’met, honoring the dead. It was an affront. The nurse asked if we wanted to hold our son and I did, but my husband couldn’t. I handed him back to the nurse and she said a prayer to Jesus for his soul. And I screamed. Because I am a badass. I didn’t want anything to do with this.”

Findling registered a complaint with the hospital and was invited to speak at Grand Rounds. “I was gonna school these doctors,” she said. “But their response shocked me. They told me, ‘Every other faith has provided us with guidelines and traditions and resources and referrals and a brochure that fits within their faith. Except the Jewish community. It’s not that we’re insensitive; it’s that we don’t have the brochure!’” Findling immediately wanted to work on educating medical professionals about Jewish neonatal mourning practices. “I realized that we Jews have to create the bridge,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon us to let the medical community know that the chevra kadisha takes the remains as opposed to it becoming bio-waste. It’s on us to let them know that according to halacha there is a proper way to bury it. We have to teach them about our traditions.”

The plan for the Memory Garden
The plan for the Memory Garden

This, too, is part of the vision behind the Memory Garden: making sure education and emotional space exist for mourners. “Most Jews don’t know what to do after this kind of loss,” Porth said. “They don’t know that the chevra kadisha will bury children under 18 for free. We want to say, ‘Here’s the phone number. Here’s the number for Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Here are resources you may need.’”

Porth initially reached out to Findling to see if she wanted to collaborate, then called Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel and Chevra Kadisha. He understood immediately what they wanted to do. “He thought about it for maybe 30 seconds,” Porth said. Sinai donated the land for the garden, which, in the Bay Area, where burial space is pricey and rare, is no small thing. “The land is valued at a million dollars,” Findling said. “It has a beautiful view of San Bruno Mountain, in a place with tombstones dating back to the 1800s. It’s right in front of the children’s area of the cemetery. That seemed fitting.”

Men, too, are encouraged to visit. Their grief for a partner’s miscarriage is often obscured, discouraged in a world still ruled by toxic masculinity.

It’s designed to be welcoming to all. “Everyone’s loss is worthy of a place,” Porth said. “With IVF, you only tend to hear when it’s successful,” she went on. “People for whom IVF didn’t work, people who never got pregnant, people who experienced failed adoptions—this space is for them.” Women who’ve had abortions are explicitly welcome, too. “In the reproductive rights movement, for political reasons, the narrative was always, ‘this isn’t emotional, women rarely grieve,’” Porth said. “But now the movement is changing to shift the narrative.” Findling continued: “Even if it’s not grief, we Jews mark time. I don’t regret or grieve my abortions. But I do want to mark them. Jews go to the mikvah and light Shabbat candles to mark transitions from one place to another, whether it’s with grief or joy or something between. Why should this be different?”

Men, too, are encouraged to visit. Their grief for a partner’s miscarriage is often obscured, discouraged in a world still ruled by toxic masculinity. Findling said, “I had a physical experience, physical pain. I experienced a journey and a process and healing. But my husband, he had nothing. He had no physical transformation. The focus was all on my health, my recovery—spiritual and emotional and physical.” A man in his 70s told Porth and Findling that his wife had had a stillbirth 40 years earlier and he still feels it.

Women with small children may not feel entitled to grieve if they experience secondary infertility. (That’s why Porth and Findling want to reach out to preschools with offers of help and information.) Women in their 80s may never have gotten over not being allowed to mourn or say they’d lost a child. Women during the pandemic may not want to “make a big deal” out of pregnancy loss when other people they know have lost loved ones to COVID-19. (And if there turns out to be a COVID-19 baby boom, as some predict, there will also be a miscarriage boom.)

But why is this ritual space and grief education movement happening now? Why not earlier? “I think women in this generation are more willing to talk about difficult things publicly,” Porth said. “And I think the lessening of stigma across the board has to do with women in the rabbinate. Female rabbis struggle with their own fertility losses. One told me that until we started talking about this, it never occurred to her to talk about her own miscarriage from the pulpit.” But openness fuels openness. Change fuels change. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

The duo envision the garden being used in lots of different ways. People could go singly or in couples, friends could accompany friends, therapists could go with clients and rabbis with congregants. People could create their own rituals and write their own prayers. There are no graves, no nameplates, no individual markers, so the space is consciously welcoming to Jews who are strict in their observance of Halacha. Maybe a mourner will go every day for a month after their loss. Maybe they’ll go every year on the anniversary. Maybe they’ll visit on the spur of the moment. “It’s near Target,” Findling said. “Sometimes I go to Target and say, ‘You know what? I wanna go to the Garden.’”

When I had my miscarriage, I didn’t feel entitled to my sorrow. A friend had recently experienced a stillbirth. That was so much worse. It seemed self-absorbed and selfish to be as sad as I was. Debbie and Abby discourage this kind of thinking. “Your loss was profound for you and mine was profound for me,” Porth said. “I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of grief,” Findling added.

Today, Findling and her husband have a daughter; Porth and her husband have two kids. These facts don’t negate the past.

They hope the idea of Memory Garden will spread to other Jewish communities. “The Bay Area pioneers in so many ways what Jewish ritual and practice will look like nationwide” Porth said. In LGBTQ inclusion and in environmentalist Judaism, to name two examples, the Bay Area led the way. “We’re all just struggling to get through life,” Findling said. “We all want … well, Abby’s word is a salve.” Like a garden.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.