Photo by Michelle V. Agins,The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2010
The chevra kadisha (“Holy Community”) is a geographically-organized group responsible for all Jewish matters pertaining to death, including arranging people to sit with and guard the body (shemira), and preparation of the body for burial (tahara). The 7th of Adar, which falls this year on February 22, is the date the Rabbis assigned to Moshe’s death (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 38a). Because God prepared Moshe’s body for burial personally, the chevra honors this date as a day of reflection on the work they do. Different chevras and members have various approaches to balancing modesty with a desire to spread knowledge regarding death rituals to make them less obscure. This post is part 3 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, and 2, by Nina Rubin
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“Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it,” observed Morrie Schwartz (of “Tuesdays with Morrie”) as he faced his own death more than two decades ago. The hevra kadisha / sacred burial fellowship believes it—and offers us the priceless response of ultimate hesed / kindness. Yet the vast majority of hevra kadisha services are still provided on an impersonal cash basis in our major urban centers, far removed from public awareness.
We need to regroup. Over nearly two decades as a hevra kadisha organizer and educator in communities across the United States, I’ve identified some time-tested practices for developing and sustaining a sacred fellowship within the Jewish funeral ecosystem.
1) Regularly Celebrate Caring Community—and Invite EVERYONE.
Whether your community maintains a hevra kadisha, is in the process of organizing one, or simply wants to grow in its caring efforts, schedule a modest program with food on or around the 7th of Adar—and promote the program to your community at large. Tell all your people that, even if they can’t imagine themselves volunteering to care for the dead, they can support this sacred effort by simply showing up to eat, drink, and celebrate hesed.
Park Slope Jewish Center (PSJC) in Brooklyn, NY offered our first 7 Adar program in 2004, building on an infrastructure of showing up for the bereaved (see Practice 4). When we held our first annual hevra kadisha dinner a year later, we had not yet mobilized for taharah / cleansing and dressing of the dead. When hevra volunteers asked what we were celebrating, I replied that we were celebrating the fact that we were now organized, on call, and ready to serve. Three months later our hevra mobilized on a full-service basis for the first time, offering taharah as well as sh’mirah / vigil-keeping.
If your pre-Purim schedule is overloaded, consider other traditional dates for highlighting these issues—including Lag b’Omer, Rosh Hodesh Tammuz (when the prototypical Prague burial society held its annual banquet), the 15th or 20th of Kislev, and/or (hiding in plain sight) the High Holy Days with their “Who shall live and who shall die?” Consistent, annual public programming generally pays off with additional “civilians” joining the ranks of vigil-keepers (see Practice 5)—and/or with vigil-keepers stepping up to join the taharah team.
2) Uphold Principles over Personalities.
When the PSJC hevra first mobilized on a full-service basis—during a major holiday weekend, with most key congregational leaders out of town—it was to care for a synagogue member whom almost no one knew. To be truly sacred, burial fellowships need to organize themselves so that they can offer an equal level of care to ALL community members, regardless of social status or personal connections.
The hevra kadisha can learn much from modern addiction recovery fellowships about anonymity as “the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.” On principle, individual sacred fellowship members are not publicly identified or acknowledged for our involvement with any particular death. This safeguards the privacy of the deceased—with whom hevra members come into intimate contact at the most vulnerable of times—and also helps to insure that gratitude and community support are appropriately channeled to the fellowship as a whole.
On the other hand, certain secretive, elitist traditions of the hevra kadisha contributed to its near-demise in twentieth-century North America (see Practice 3). While practicing anonymity at the level of individual deaths, we need to identify ourselves more generally as appropriate to sustain community support through education and outreach. Volunteer recognition at an annual public dinner (as per Practice 1) can advance this goal very effectively. In the words of my sacred fellowship mentor, Myriam Abramowicz, who brought taharah to the mega-Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan: “A hevra kadisha is a sacred society, not a secret society.”
3) Learn from History. Then Add Your Own Stories.
Sustainability, simplicity, equality and community are interlocking values that have helped Jews face death for thousands of years. Learning from our Jewish “usable past” can help us recover and reintegrate these values in practice.
Rabbi Arnold Goodman’s A Plain Pine Box (on which the short documentary film of the same name is based) is a classic, brief, and readable primer. The book restores hands-on participation in honoring the dead to its rightful place on the caring continuum between visiting the sick and consoling the bereaved—and it locates the sacred fellowship within the historical context of both Jewish funeral consumer advocacy (see Practice 6) and the DIY / do-it-yourself Judaism of previous generations.
Also vital are the first-person testimonies of sacred fellowship members throughout the United States and across the denominational spectrum. I have compiled excerpts from previously published testimonies into a multi-voice dramatic reading that serves as a “virtual taharah” for outreach purposes. With respect for anonymity and without identifying details of the dead (as per Practice 2), we can add to this body of personal stories, demystifying participation while providing inspiration for others to join, support, and/or request the hevra kadisha (see Practice 7).
4) Start by Showing Up for the Living.
“It seems to me that consoling mourners takes precedence over visiting the sick, as consoling mourners dispenses kindness with the living and with the dead,” observed Maimonides in his Laws of Mourning (14.7). Our PSJC hevra was initially drawn from the ranks of synagogue members who could be counted upon to show up at houses of mourning. If your fellowship is congregation- or minyan-based, begin by reviewing your protocols for consoling the bereaved to insure that they meet the standards described in Practice 2 for egalitarian levels of care, regardless of social status or personal connections.
If your fellowship is inter-organizational and community-based, successful recruitment and retention are likely to proceed along similar paths of more familiar hesed.
5) Lead with Sh’mirah / Vigil-Keeping.
In light of renewed Jewish interest in Mussar / Jewish ethical development, it’s worth noting that Rabbi Israel Salanter’s final Mussar teaching was the reassurance of his attendant to “not be afraid to be left alone all night with the body of a dead man” (A.J. Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s, page 21). Contrary to our fears, the dead are actually vulnerable and, after all these centuries, still in need of our vigilance against body-parts trafficking and other forms of criminal desecration.
Protection of the body against dishonor is the essence of levayah / accompanying the dead. Even more than taharah, I believe that the heart of this accompanying is sh’mirah, the traditional vigil between death and burial. Sh’mirah can be kept alone or shared, in shifts of 2 hours or longer, reciting Psalms or reading other appropriate literature, singing or sitting mindfully in silence.
Since it does not involve direct physical contact with the dead, vigil-keeping is a more accessible form of sacred fellowship service. It requires no specialized training or materials, and can be organized even in the absence of taharah. And while taharah remains the purview of adults, sh’mirah is accessible to adolescents as well. Even recent b’nai mitzvah can take a shift sitting at a funeral home with a parent or other trusted adult—as the cultural fascination with the “undead” is channeled toward a healthy, helpful involvement in honoring the actual dead.
Our PSJC hevra kadisha began mobilizing sporadically for sh’mirah a decade before our first taharah. Today there are about 70 adult volunteers on call, and many have been parents of young children at the time of their involvement. All the volunteers are vigil-keepers (of whom about one-third are also taharah team members), and some have recruited their teenagers to sit with them. Children learn by example that showing up for the dead is part of what makes a caring community—and that if you’re not available this time, no worries. We’ll keep you on the roster for next time.
6) Understand and Respect the Jewish Funeral Ecosystem.
Funerals impact our natural ecosystems through human ecosystems of funeral arrangements—each organic, inorganic, emotional, social, and economic component interacting with and modifying the others.   Ostensibly lower consumer costs may obscure fossil fuel subsidies and higher environmental damage. The most ecologically sustainable arrangements may not involve the most immediate dispositions. The most immediate dispositions may not yield the greatest consolation for the majority of those bereaved.
Learning from A Plain Pine Box (see Practice 3), the PSJC Simple Funeral Plan offers full-service levayah—including hevra kadisha and cemetery plot—at a cost historically on par with the local Hebrew Free Burial Association. Levayah encompasses biodegradability (“To dust you shall return”), sustainability (“Do not waste or destroy”), simplicity and equality (“All should be brought out on a plain bier for the honor of the poor”), as well as kindness toward both living and dead (see Practice 4). A better understanding of levayah and the funeral ecosystem that it represents can help Jews of diverse backgrounds to navigate the bewildering range of final choices that face us today.
7) Keep It Simple—and Keep It Going!
My hevra kadisha mentor Rabbi Shaul Ginsberg has more experience with the diversity of sacred fellowship practices than anyone else I know—between his native South Africa, his adopted Hareidi / insular Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, and his decades of shipping bodies to Israel. He asserts that “The only halakhah / law is k’vod hameit / honoring the dead. Everything else is minhag / custom.”
The manual that I compiled in 2005 features a traditional egalitarian liturgy and detailed instructions, and has been used internationally. Even so, I affirm Rabbi Ginsberg’s Torah in my own assertion: The only requirement for hevra kadisha involvement is the willingness to be respectful and cooperative in the presence of the dead. The future of the sacred burial fellowship depends much more upon in-service support, continuous recruitment, and coverage rotation contingencies than upon the formal liturgical details that I’m happy to review with those who are moving toward practical commitment.
All the rest is commentary. Go forth, learn—and serve!
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH, is the executive director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources, which promotes justice and kindness across lines of diversity and throughout the life cycle. She offers consultation, education and training through Sacred Undertaking, a project of WAYS OF PEACE.