An Interview with Kehilla Congregant Jane Hoberman
By Bill Lazarus
It was 1970, and Jane Hoberman, then 18, child of New York City and leftwing atheist parents, was eager for a change. “I didn’t finish high school because I was too busy doing my revolutionary stuff. It was a politically active and unsettled time,” Jane recalls. She hitchhiked across the nation and landed in the political vortex that was Berkeley. “I was very rebellious. I’ve been in California ever since.”
Jane has immersed her life in the scientific and the spiritual. She didn’t need a high school diploma to attend Laney. From there, Jane went on to UC Berkeley, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a field that attracted her because of her knack for math and her practical bent. She hooked into UC’s Space Science Lab, where she worked for 25 years.
Four years ago, Jane was greatly looking forward to an expedition to Antarctica where she and colleagues would set up electronic equipment they had built. She had to undergo a barrage of medical tests first. Right after the completion of the testing, Jane had a massive heart attack. “At first I was really upset and sad and angry” about the sudden change in plans since “I had so wanted to go to Antarctica.” Care from her community eased the sting. “People at Kehilla were wonderful to me. They brought meals and visited. It was organized so that different people would visit every day. I felt really cradled and cared for by Kehilla members. … I was upset, then I felt so grateful that I was still alive.”
Matters of life and death and community have long been with Jane. Some 25 years ago she participated in a tahara, the ritual preparation of a body for passage into after-life, for a dear friend, a woman who had long been a judge. Rabbi Zari Weiss asked Jane to talk about the experience which had profoundly affected her outlook.
“I grew up as a Jewish intellectual,” Jane says. “I really valued the contribution people would make to the world.” With the tahara, it was different. “In doing a tahara, I had no idea what their life was like, other than this was the end of their life. They were valuable to me. They were important and deserved honor and respect, whatever they did in life. I felt honor and closeness to that person.”
Jane was also attracted by the immediacy, the intense focus and the emotion in-volved in doing a tahara. “It’s very bonding because at that moment you have to work together really well as a group.” Also, “I think it makes you a lot less afraid of death, and a lot more comfortable with other people’s death.”
Then, Kehilla member Maxine Auerbach was dying of breast cancer and wanted a tahara too. In the ensuing plans, Kehilla’s Chevra Kadisha was formed. A chevra kadi-sha, or holy society, is the group within Jewish communities that performs taharas and cares for community members at the time of death.
“It suits me,” Jane says. “I feel like it’s a deep spiritual connection with other people, living and dead.” At services Jane sometime spots a spouse or child of a person who she cared for in death. “They don’t know, but I know, and I feel a real connection with them.”
Jane’s kids had a different response as they grew up. “When meetings were held at the house, my kids would react, ‘Oh it’s those people who wash dead bodies. I’m go-ing upstairs.” Even now, “They think it’s a little peculiar, but they are use to it.”
In addition to the tahara, Kehilla’s Chevra Kadisha organizes the shimra, the sitting with the body until burial, and puts together adult education classes on death and dy-ing.
It was likely on a walk in Mt. View Cemetery that Jane and Cathy Steirn thought of trying to establish a Kehilla section. After years of effort, the project came together this year, and Kehilla now has 48 plots reserved. Interest initially was slow. But now all but one of the plots has been sold. Kehilla itself purchased two where , the cemetery has agreed, a total of 20 cremains can be buried.
Mass death played a role in Jane’s upbringing. While her extended family in New York identified as Jewish, not so much with her politically radical parents. But World War II and the Nazi rise to power spurred their identity as Jews. They settled in a heavily Jewish enclave in Queens where Jane grew up until she reached junior high school when they moved to Manhattan’s upper east side.
About 34 years ago, at the time of Kehilla’s founding, Jane went to her first Kehilla service, which was held in a Quaker meeting hall. From the outset, she liked the con-gregation’s political activism. She became involved in the shul’s sanctuary committee and joined Kehilla’s board. Jane also took to learning about prayer, ritual and Judaism as a religion. Her work with immigration has continued with her involvement in an ac-companiment team.
Jane’s husband Bob Kelly was brought up Catholic and “always said he had had enough of religion. But he liked Kehilla because he felt it gave the kids an ethical and moral relationship” with the world.
Jane and Bob’s children, Jess and two of Korean ancestry, Zoe and Will, all partici-pated in Kehilla. Zoe is married, in grad school in occupational therapy in Arizona, and feeling ecstatic with the election of a Democratic woman as the state’s newest U.S. senator. Will is a firefighter in Berkeley, with two kids of his own and a working wife. When Will is on his 48-hour shifts, Jane and Bob babysit. Jesse is a criminal defense lawyer in the Bronx.
Jane says her involvement the Chevra Kadisha “helps me be helpful and compas-sionate to people experiencing the death of a loved person. I think I’ve been able to teach that to my kids too.” She’d advise her children, “You have to say something to that kid whose mother died. Otherwise you’ll always be uncomfortable, and that per-son will be suffering all by themselves.”
Jane herself hasn’t fully reconciled her scientific and spiritual sides. “I believe in af-terlife,” she says. In doing a tahara, “I feel like I’m easing their passage from living to death. … It’s not a logical thought. I just accept it because I feel it.” Yet, Jane also says she doesn’t know whether one’s spirit lives on, and notes, “I feel okay with having an ideology that’s not rigid.”
As Jane ponders her being she is quietly accepting. “I haven’t done anything spec-tacular with my life,” she says. “I feel really grateful for it. It works for me and that is good enough.”