A few months ago, I got a phone call from my friend Elissa. She told me that her life coach, Chris, was writing a children’s book about life after death, and that he was including different religious perspectives in his book. He’d asked her about the Jewish view, and she deferred to me, saying that she wasn’t the expert on the topic, but that I’d know what should be included. Would it be OK, she asked, to give Chris my number?
Sure, I said. It would.
A few days later, Chris called from sunny California. He explained that he was writing the book in memory of his mother, who had passed, and wanted to honor her with it. The book was to be about animals having a conversation with each other about what they believe happens to us after we die. But he was unfamiliar with the Jewish view. Could I help?
This is where us Jewish educators salivate.
The hard part, of course, is being concise. With so much to say, and so little airtime, how to condense such a dense topic?
I told him that, as far as I knew, there was no book for children about what happens to us after we die, although children always ask those tough questions, and adults rarely know how to respond. Also, I shared, many Jews are unfamiliar with what Judaism believes about the afterlife.
I began to share with Chris what Judaism teaches about the afterlife. Judaism does believe there is life after death; it teaches that the afterlife is the space we create with our actions and choices on this earth; we believe in hell, but mostly as a way station to rehabilitate oneself and heal spiritually on the way to heaven. I also told Chris that writing the book to honor his mother was a very Jewish idea, as the soul can no longer advocate for itself once in heaven, but its loved ones can perform acts of goodness, kindness, and charity to benefit the soul of their loved ones, and that the benefit of the book would honor his mother’s soul.
Also, the afterlife is like a one-way window. Although we can’t see our loved ones after they have passed, we believe that they can see us and even join in our special occasions and milestones. I added that my own father had passed when I was very young, and that these ideas had given me much comfort throughout the forty years that he’s been gone.
Chris, who, by the way, is an excellent listener (I guess life coaching is predicated on this), seemed fascinated and moved by these ideas. And then, the kicker:
“You know,” said Chris, “that my mother was Jewish.”
“Your mother was Jewish. Well then, you, Chris, are Jewish too.”
And that is how I came to teach a Jew in California, distant from his Jewish roots, about the Jewish beliefs of the afterlife. Who knows? Maybe his mother brought us together. Maybe she and my father are looking through the one-way glass, smiling at the conversation, and jointly sharing the nachas.