Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica's Sha'arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.
His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.
With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.
"What should I do?" the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.
A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a "paramedic," in vest and plastic firefighter's hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.
This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.
"What do we now? " the rabbi asks.
The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.
"Well," Marx says. "As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried."
When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the "Man From the Mortuary." Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.
The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.
It's an impressive transformation.
With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.
Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.
"I've wanted to do a program on death for a long time," Marx says on the way to the cemetery. "It's good for the kids, but lots of parents haven't had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world," he said.
The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.
"Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body," he says. "We hit on Barney as the perfect solution -- he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him."
Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.
Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn't really important for people in their 40s.
"But, in fact," he now says, "I learned things I assumed I wouldn't need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion," he said.
"Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we'd gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult," he says. "As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it's almost essential."
Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.
"It's always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life," said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.
"Children in the fourth and fifth grade don't yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions," she added.
When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside's Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary's director of community outreach is waiting.
She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.
In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.
This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris' gravestone.
All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations -- ones that will no doubt continue.
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