We are here today to dedicate this land to be the Ner Shalom Cemetery, the resting place of this community. I say "dedicate" and not "consecrate" because this land is already sacred. It is the beloved soil and ancestral land of the Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo tribes. We are, in comparison, newcomers. But in dedicating this land to be our beyt olam, our enduring home, we honor and give thanks to the elders before us, and we cast our lot with them, becoming, alongside them, part of this beloved land and its history.
We gather to dedicate this to be the place where we will return to the earth, where we will be visited and remembered, and our physical selves carried forward in the grass and the Gravensteins – a tree whose very name means gravestone. We hold this land open to welcome in death any who would be part of our community in life. Those who were born or became Jewish, those who declare themselves Jewish without formalities, and those who have been loved ones and fellow travelers in this life's journey. For all who have thrown their lot in with this community, this is your place too.
Our people's earliest collective memory of a cemetery comes to us in the story of Abraham and Sarah. They were wanderers, the two of them and their household. But in death they became landowners, tied to a place. Sarah died, and Abraham arranged the purchase of a family burial plot at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where he could bury Sarah and weep over her.
He was buried there too. And Isaac and Rebecca and Leah and Jacob with special pomp. Even Joseph's bones, brought back from Egypt generations later, were laid to rest there. There is so much Torah does not tell us about these people – what they wore or the houses they built or the games they played with their children. But we know how they buried and eulogized and mourned. We know about their family plot.
I have always loved cemeteries and what they tell us not only about death but about the life of a community. They are snapshots of style and sensibility. The architecture of the time as reflected in gravestones. Clues about connections; traces of relationships. What character traits and information were thought important enough to be chiseled in stone. I love a cemetery's confidence, its imagining of permanence and posterity – that one day children and grandchildren, friends, admirers, students and students of students – or even just the casual passerby – might find their way there to visit and pay respects.
I have seen many cemeteries and loved them all. Pilgrim churchyards in New England, stylish graveyards of Berlin's or Paris's bohemian set. Crooked, crowded Jewish cemeteries in Prague and Bialystok. Landsmanshaft cemeteries in Chicago, belonging to immigrants who transplanted their communities from Russian shtetlach to American streets, but ultimately ended up in the enclosed safety of their shared cemetery.
Last year I had the privilege to visit and stand at the resting place of my great-great and great-great-great grandfathers in what was once a sunny hilltop in southwestern Germany. But now that hilltop is forested, with European sycamore maples pushing right out of the graves, fed by rain and the composting of centuries. The Jews of 30 small towns were buried there, continuing on as neighbors and friends beyond the limits of this mortal life.
And so we will do as well. Here, in this place – with our own style and architecture and ways, reflecting this moment in which we live – here we will one day lie down to rest. This will be our beyt olam, our beys oylem, our home far longer than any home we've ever lived in.
So here we are to dedicate this place. Gesher Calmenson pointed out to me this week how the word makom in Hebrew can mean place, but also can mean God. That God is in this place and is every place. We ourselves will become this place. We will go, in Gesher's words, from being in the world to being the world. And we will reunite with God, with everything, in the process.
And so today we greet and announce ourselves to our future home and begin to prepare the soil. We will circle its perimeter with our Torah scroll, which carries with it the memories and blessings of the Jewish community of Sobeslav. We will dust the land with soil from Jerusalem. We will seed it with our love, and work it with our prayers for peace and rest and release. We will cultivate it with our blessings for the future. There will be days, many of them over time, when we will furrow the soil with the furrowed brows of our grief. But those days are not yet, and may they be a long way off. Today we will sing and walk. We will get to know this place and it will get to know us.
And so here, in the Burbank Gardens of Pleasant Hills Cemetery in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, on the Russian River Water Shed that washes through this land, carrying our blessings to the Pacific Ocean, and from there to everywhere, we declare the ongoing holiness of this place and we fill it with our love and our gratitude.
I'm very grateful to the Ner Shalomers who brought this cemetery project to fruition: Gesher Calmenson, Barbara Lesch McCaffry, Rita Rowan and Bloom Almeida. To find out more about the Ner Shalom Cemetery, click here.