In Judah, Jews buried their own. In Persia, Jews buried their own. Across Europe, throughout Italy, Spain and Poland, Jews buried their own.
But in America, Jews essentially stopped. Funeral homes and commercial entities largely replaced families and communities attending to their dead.
Recently, though, against the trend of outsourcing, there was a return to tradition. In the hills of Wheeling, W.Va., at the funeral of their father, one Jewish family revisited the millennia-old practice and buried its own — but with a twist.
Last summer, the Hillel Academy supervisors of Reb Danny Shaw, director of student life at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh approached him with a question. There was a family whose son wanted to attend the school, they said. The student would like an after-school woodshop club. Can it happen?
Shaw, a multitasker and networker, welcomed the challenge. “I got to work,” he said.
Decades had passed since Hillel Academy had offered woodshop. There was no former teacher to call, no curriculum to consult. But Shaw knew he needed someone able to connect with students, an individual responsible with power tools, a person familiar with the school.
He spoke with Hillel Academy CEO Dan Kraut, who directed him to Jason Small. In 2011, Small had worked with students from Hillel Academy’s Girls High School on designing a set for their production of “Oz.”
“We made parts for the set — a hot air balloon, trees, mushrooms, a caravan, as well as a Tin Man costume,” Small recalled.
Shaw offered him leadership of the woodshop club and Small agreed.
Initially, Small wanted the club to focus on home repairs, but he quickly switched to construction when he realized the students were more interested in actually “making things.”
Throughout the school year, the students met regularly with Small. For their first project, they welded pipes to create a menora. Next, they used wood to make a kitchen knife block.
But for the final project, Small asked the students to apply their newly acquired skills to something to help the community. He invited Rabbi Daniel Wasserman to speak to the club, and both proposed a project no one would imagine.
“I want you to have fun,” Wasserman told them, “but what I want you to build is not a tool rack or a bird house; what you’re building is something uniquely Jewish. It’s uniquely chesed.”
As soon as Wasserman left, the students began building a casket.
• • •
T.J. Posin was born in 1936 in Wheeling, W.Va. Thirteen years earlier, in 1923, his father had opened a jewelry store. He grew up working in the store, learning about sales, credit and customer relations.
“In those days, not everybody could get credit,” said Squirrel Hill resident Joel Posin, T.J.’s son, “but my father and my grandfather were far more liberal. They always gave credit.” Joel said he lost count of how many times someone told him his father, his grandfather, was the first person to give him credit, making that grateful recipient a lifelong customer.
T.J. succeeded in the jewelry business and emerged as a prominent member of the Wheeling community. He joined the Kiwanis Club, and eventually became its president.
Like their father, Joel and his brother, Samuel, grew up in the jewelry business. They learned the trade and kept the business going. While Samuel stayed in Wheeling, Joel moved to Pittsburgh. Occasionally, T.J. would visit Joel and his family.
“My son, Yaakov, had a special connection with my father,” Joel said, “My dad used to like to give people bear hugs. Yaakov isn’t one for hugs, but he would let my dad give him a bear hug.”
• • •
When the wood arrived at Hillel Academy, the students began working. For each step, Small performed an operation and the students followed. Pieces of 1×12 and 1×16 boards were cut with a jigsaw; rabbets were formed on the sides, and a router was employed. The top was a sheet of plywood. Temporary screws, and glue, held each casket together. After the glue dried, Small replaced the screws with dowels.
When the caskets were ready, Small delivered them to Wasserman. A short time later, Wasserman received a phone call. T.J. Posin passed away. Wasserman traveled to Wheeling with a casket, retrieved the body, and performed the traditions pertinent to the dead.
Before the funeral, Wasserman had a revelation. At the burial, where he co-officiated with the local rabbi, Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, he described how a group of Jewish day school students at Hillel Academy formed a woodshop club, and as a project to help the community properly honor its dead the students made caskets for traditional Jewish burials.
The first responsibility of burying the dead rests with the family, Wasserman told the attendees, then the community. That’s the way it was done for thousands of years.
Then, Joel related, “with one hand on the casket,” Wasserman explained that the simple pine box before him was built by members of the Hillel Academy Woodshop Club. But more importantly, Wasserman said, one of the members of that club was Yaakov Posin, T.J.’s grandson.
When the students met to make the caskets, no one knew who would use them. Unknowingly, Yaakov helped build his own grandfather’s casket.
“More than a few people were brought to tears,” Joel said, “My dad had a special connection with Yaakov.”
Traditional Jewish caskets are wooden, unadorned boxes. The simplicity of the casket is a reminder that rich and poor are alike in death, and that the body and its surroundings should quickly return to the earth. So, in a simple wooden box assembled by his grandson and students of Hillel Academy, without any jewelry or decoration, the body of T.J. Posin was buried. So much credit, so much kindness, and no one could imagine a greater repayment.
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)