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In Times of Sorrow

As far back as she can remember, Ariana Katz, 26, has associated Judaism with joy.

But she's come to learn that Judaism is also about facing life's sorrows. As she’s traveled from childhood to adulthood, she’s come to appreciate that Jewish civilization offers powerful tools to help people process loss and rediscover joy. Katz, a fourth-year rabbinical student at RRC, believes it is important to be engaged in one’s community in both times of celebration and times of sorrow. And her work has taught her that talking and thinking about death can help one lead a more meaningful life.

This belief led her to explore Jewish rituals of death and mourning and to embark on her most ambitious effort yet. Taking to the internet airwaves, Katz recently launched “Kaddish,” a podcast that unreservedly discusses death and mourning mixing Jewish and contemporary themes. The podcast, she hopes, will appeal to many different audiences: rabbis and rabbinical students across the denominational spectrum, people of all faiths struggling with loss, congregational leaders and volunteers involved with organizing shivah minyans and other communal functions surrounding death and morning, and people who are simply curious.  

Katz, a lover of the podcast medium, explains that she aims to create “a wall of sound that intersperses different perspectives in the narrative.” The podcast “is inspired by the way that conversations in Talmud are organized. And we have to expand with more context. We have to draw from law and we have to present multiple opinions, surrounded by history and more narrative.”

Katz was recently awarded $20,000—with the expectation that she will raise an additional $10,000—to develop the podcast as part of RRC’s Auerbach Grant Program. Under the auspices of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, the program aims to fund innovative pilot projects for Jewish living and engagement in the 21st century that have the potential to grow and be replicated. She also received a $1,000 mini Auerbach grant—one of eight handed out to current and former students—to bring a groundbreaking performance of a one-woman play to a West Philadelphia synagogue. The play, “Post Traumatic Super Delightful” by Antonia Lassar, intends to spark discussion about the issue of sexual assault on campus.

The model for the podcast was developed as part of an RRC course on entrepreneurship taught by Cyd Weissman, assistant vice president for innovation and Impact. 

Katz plans to release a new episode of Kaddish every month. The debut episode combined discussions of the traditional Kaddish prayer and a contemporary interpretation, with a discussion of Rabbi Akiva and the Black Lives Matter movement. For those who are looking for more resources on death, dying and mourning, Katz will be making available the resources she discusses during each broadcast on her website. She expects to use technology to communicate with listeners and help people—whether they’re Jewish or not—deal with grief and loss.

“It is built into the grant to talk to people who listen to my show,” says Katz. “I have time in my schedule to say, here is a great book, here is a great blog, here is what I have learned, here is someone who knows more than I do. I have already been meeting with people just to talk about their lives.

“There is funding to be a social-media rabbi, which is a flashy way of saying that I am using the internet to meet Jews who need rabbis,” explains Katz, who majored in sociology and gender studies at Boston University.

Katz grew up in suburban Philadelphia, attending Jewish day schools and a Conservative synagogue. Growing up, her parents instilled her with the notion that the Torah was hers to study, to wrestle with, and to call upon for sustenance. 

And it was supposed to be fun. She recalls marching in Shabbat parades around the house singing songs before sitting down to eat, and her mom dressing her and her brother as mishloach manot, gift baskets, for Purim.  “Our lives were joyful and Jewish at the same time. I could not separate the two if I tried.”

She grew up quite comfortable in her Jewish identity, but it wasn’t until she visited Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, N.J., that she discovered Reconstructionism and found her Jewish home.

During a Torah study circle, Katz recalled that her brother raised a Marxist objection to a point Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, ’02, had made. Rather than dismiss him, Rabbi Tepperman engaged him and brought him into the discussion, responding with the language of Torah.

She and her partner, Ever, were married last year. Ever teaches religious school while studying law at Villanova University

In many ways, Katz’s Jewish journey and RRC experience is emblematic, particularly in the way she has had such an impact beyond RRC’s walls while still a student.

This summer, Katz spent 11 weeks immersed in clinical pastoral education—chaplaincy training—at Hebrew Senior Life, a comprehensive senior care services and senior living community outside Boston. She loves chaplaincy work and admits it will be hard to one day have to choose between being in a chaplaincy or congregational setting. Perhaps, she says, she can do both.

“The highlight: every Wednesday, I taught Torah study, or, more accurately, I was in Torah study,” she says. “It was an incredible blessing. I learned Torah from people in their 80s and 90s. They helped me make sense of things that had troubled me for years.”

“When generations study Torah together,” she adds, “it means we are going to be fine as a people.”

During her tenure at RRC, Katz has also been involved in congregational work and outside activism.

For three years, Katz ran the religious school at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. (Kok Tzedek was founded by RRC graduate Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, ‘06.) This past year, Katz served as the congregation’s rabbinic intern.

Reproductive choice is an important issue for Katz, too. She is a volunteer chaplain at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania and was recently invited to join the organization’s board. She is also studying to be a soferet, a scribe with the skills to write a Torah scroll that can be used in religious observance.

Losing four grandparents taught her a great deal about how Judaism can help families address grief. But it was in a class with Rabbi Linda Holtzman, ’79, that she became exposed to the Jewish practice of tahara: the ritual purification of a body prior to burial. The central part of the process involves dousing the body with a proscribed amount of water. Traditionally, a Jewish individual is buried in plain white shrouds, or tachrichim, and the ceremony involves the recitation of a Hebrew prayer that asks for the soul to be elevated.

Most non-Orthodox Jews are unfamiliar with the pre-burial ritual, trusting funeral homes to take care of the details. But in recent years, a number of progressive groups have formed around the country, seeking to reclaim this ritual, honor the deceased and their families, and act with more flexibility than Orthodox burial societies.

Katz learned about the Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah of Philadelphia and how Rabbi Holtzman initially started it as a way to help gay men who had succumbed to AIDS find dignity in death. The group responds when requested, helping many families observe a Jewish ritual without being bond by the rigidity of Jewish law.

“The ways that Judaism helps us confront death and burial are transformative and meaningful,” says Katz. “Learning tahara has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.”

Earlier this year, Katz organized a series of public programs at Kol Tzedek about the hevrah kaddishah that was covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Jewish Exponent.

Now, outside of school work, she turns most of her attention to the podcast as well as learning and talking about issues related to death, mourning and loss.

What does success look like?

On the basic level, she says, it’s completing 12 episodes. On a deeper level, Katz hopes to reach as many people as she can and help them through sadness, loss and pain.

“People are really hungry to talk and think about this,” said Katz. “That also feels like success; hearing people’s grief stories and bearing witness to them.”

In addition to the podcast itself, Katz plans to interact with her audience via periodic Twitter chats. (Find more information and updates on Twitter, @kaddishpodcast, and facebook.com/kaddishpodcast)

Click here to return to Journeys Newsletter - September 2016 >>