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This article is part of a collaborative series commissioned by altMuslimah and Jewschool to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Muslim and Jewish communities experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
A brief tour of gaslighting:
A thing happens, something is said or done.
A person is told it did not happen, or that it did not happen the way she thinks it did. This telling can come from individuals, as well as groups, and is a means of seizing and maintaining power. (One can indeed be gaslit into believing gaslighting is not happening.)
She knows what she saw and/or heard.
She is again told that that is not what happened.
She begins to wonder if she’s going crazy.
Repeat 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
A brief tour of gaslighting in the modern political era
Vocalized again and again: clarion call, dog whistles, code words, signaling to White supremacists that he is with them.
She hears it. She knows what to look for, how to hear it, because after hearing it for years, she knows it all too well.
But – “That’s not what he meant,” “You just need something to be angry about,” “Stop making trouble,” “You’re the only one who thinks that.”
When something happens – a mosque or synagogue defaced, Muslims and Jews attacked in the streets, White supremacists converge and march, she is told it is merely an aberration, the work of a few, but certainly not the result of purposeful galvanization of hatred. Certainly not.
Repeat 1, 2, 3, and 4.
In our current political era, those who use anti-Muslim and anti-semitic rhetoric are very aware of what they’re saying, and they know how to speak in covert terms in order to make it seem like they’re not doing it at all. Here are some examples.
A brief collection of anti-semitic code words and phrases
“Elites” – In 2016, Hillary Clinton was accused of being at the helm of “a global power structure” ( the term ‘elites’ was used earlier in the speech), whose goal was to destroy the working class. Anti-semitism has often relied on the idea that Jews are somehow separate from everyone else (see “Aliens” below), but the characterization of Jews as elite is a means of perpetuating the notion of a cabal that seeks to control the banks, the media, and ultimately, world governments. “Elite” perpetuates the idea that all Jews are wealthy and have attended prestigious colleges, where they have been welcomed into the aforementioned cabal.
“Aliens,” people from another world, etc – Jews are disloyal to the country where they live, that they are tricksters and interlopers who cannot be trusted. See: Roy Moore’s attack on George Soros (a lighting rod anti-semitism on the Right from not only non-Jews, but Jews as well), in which Moore accused Soros of promoting an agenda that was “not American culture.” “Soros comes from another world that I do not identify with,” Moore told American Family Radio in December 2017.
“International banks” – One particular clarion call to Neo Nazis is the use of the phrase “international banks.” “International” is key, connected with the anti semitic obsessions that Jew are not true Americans (their loyalty is actually to Israel), who are only interested in money, and the control of it. Therefore, Jews are responsible for any economic distress, vulnerability, and disparities affecting “real” Americans.
When it comes to anti-Muslim speech, the language is a little less coded. Unfortunately, we live in a time when it’s acceptable–in some political circles, even lauded—to disparage Muslims.
“Terrorists” – February 2018: 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot and killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. November 2017: 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley murdered 26 when he opened fire at the First Baptist Church in Texas. June 2015: 21-year-old Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. All of these young men committed acts of terrorism, but the media did not label any of them “terrorists.” That term is reserved for perpetrators who are Muslim.
“Radicals” “Extremists” “Fundamentalists” – There are members of every faith – and no faith – who interpret and apply their belief system in ways outside the norm. But how often do we hear about Christian extremists, Hindu fundamentalists, or Buddhist radicals? If any of those terms – “radical”; “extremist”; “fundamentalist” – comes without mention of a specific belief system, you can bet it’s being used to refer to Muslims, who are considered de facto “extreme.”
“Female genital mutilation” “honor killings” – The terms may seem like they are referring to specific practices that, in reality, span across cultures and geography. “Female genital mutilation” (used to refer to the partial or total cutting or removal of the external female genitalia) is found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East but immediately evokes “Muslim” even though there is scant evidence that Islamic sources permit, much less require or encourage, the practice. Similarly, for “honor killings”—the murder of a family member when the perpetrator believes that person has brought shame onto the family. It is practiced in diverse cultures but also references, in coded terms, Muslims and Islam. Together, these phrases impugn Islam and Muslims of being against women’s dignity and equality.
It is happening. We are not wrong, we are not imagining things , and we are not helpless. We do, however, have an obligation to understand what we are hearing to call it out, to see to it that these are no longer regarded as secret codes, but as weapons. We must urge others to do the same, and no matter what, to keep listening.
Purim is a story of inversion, in which the would-be executioner, Haman, meets his demise on the gallows he constructed to do away with the Jewish people. We commemorate this turnaround by dressing up, turning the tables on what is ordinary, and getting elevated enough in our reverie that the distinction between Haman and Mordechai – between evil and good – becomes muddy. Arriving around the same time as Lenten carnivals like Mardi Gras, Purim in the northern hemisphere marks our longing for Spring, for life.
Tucked away, beneath the gift baskets, hidden in the shadows of Purimspiels, lies the memory of terror. Like many Jewish holidays, Purim attends a narrow escape from collective peril; it enjoins a stiff drink for good reason. What, then, might this holiday offer in this time of widespread danger, when refugees shiver in makeshift tents, when the school year commences with an announcement terminating a program allowing students to attend college, when a knock at the door or a traffic stop easily leads to deportation and exile? What kind of narrow escape is possible this time?
Purim is as much a story of collective survival as it is of heroic deeds and last-minute inversions. A tale for our times, it is the story of how vulnerable people find sanctuary, spitting in the eye of their oppressors with the rowdy fact of their rebel endurance.
Rachel Barenblat explains that hiding is a key theme of Purim. On the advice of her uncle Mordechai, Esther – Hebrew root nistar, hidden –hides her Jewishness from King Ahasheverous. Secret identities take the limelight at Purim: Esther proclaims her Jewishness, saving her people. This time of year, many kinds of costume and drag display versions of ourselves that remain hidden or unimaginable the rest of the year. Carnival holidays like Purim upend powerful hierarchies, conveying the gift of life envisioned not as it is, but as it might be.
Esther’s heroism and the ensuing salvation of the Jews of Persia demonstrate for Barenblat the power of God’s love, which makes it safe to come out of hiding. Another way to think about this power is to call it sanctuary: a word that emanates from religious origins to become a collective strategy for mutual aid, for survival. At Purim, we celebrate individual courage as well as the possibility of collective shelter from the storm of history.
During the US-backed “Dirty Wars” in Central America in the 1980s, a Sanctuary Movement emerged to protect those who fled its ravages in their homelands. Multifaith, the Sanctuary Movement took partial inspiration from “Cities of Refuge” in the Old Testament, in which individuals pursued for crimes committed in error could find refuge, justice and even forgiveness. Those taking part in the Sanctuary Movement consciously violated some aspects of federal law because they felt that their faith called them to protect the vulnerable from deportation, exile and even death by being forcibly returned to homelands they had fled.
Today, a renewed New Sanctuary Movement fights the threat of deportation by working for collective shelter. Starting in 2006 with the well-publicized case of Elvira Arellano, who took sanctuary in a Chicago church until she was arrested and deported to Mexico, the New Sanctuary Movement offers support and solidarity to the thousands of people faced with the reality of deportation. As the persecution of the foreign born has increased under the current administration, congregations offering sanctuaries have multiplied, alongside individuals taking shelter in them.
While it originated in religious communities, a Sanctuary Movement now circulates beyond them, offering an alternative to the brutality of the current regime. Around the nation, approximately 300 sanctuary cities, municipalities, and counties protect their undocumented residents by prohibiting local police from collaborating with the Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement Agency in deportation raids. Similarly, a sanctuary campus movement works to protect the right of college and university students to learn without fear of harassment, arrest or detention.
While the New Sanctuary Movement formed in response to successive crises of deportation, it radiates out to re-imagine our collective and heterogeneous shelter. The commemoration of yet another Jewish narrow escape at Purim enjoins us to imagine what that might look like, for all of us.
We, as adults, are commanded to tell the Pesach story to our children. So what happens when we fail? When, it turns out, they are telling the story to us? Maybe it’s time we let our kids lead our Seders, so we can learn from them?
If Not Now and the rapidly growing movement to stop gun violence in the United States after the tragedy in Florida are just two of the clearest examples of where it is the youth who are teaching the adults what it means to remember that we, too, were slaves in Egypt. That the Jewish people are not supposed to say “if it’s good enough for everyone else, then it’s good enough for us.”
Sadly, it appears that too many of us have grown accustomed to simply telling the story, without then acting for change. This is particularly clear in the circumstances that implicate us most directly. The Occupation, which has now gone beyond 50 years, is the clearest example, but I want to focus on the insufficient Jewish community response to an Israeli government action toward African asylum seekers that will, almost literally, embody that of the ancient Egyptians. The planned deportation of those seeking refuge from slavery and atrocities is a direct and undeniable challenge to even the most liberal of Zionists.
Recently a friend and one of the most thoughtful lay observers I know, Michael Leifman, gave a d’var Torah at Adas Israel in Washington DC on Parshat Mishpatim, in which he asked us to look closely at what we learn in that portion about some of the uncomfortable elements of our tradition. This portion — despite the fact that we had just escaped from slavery — condones and even regulates various forms of slavery. And the Jewish community continued, for thousands of years, to explain and allow slavery just as their neighbors did. We sometimes fool ourselves by claiming that it was “more humane” than other kinds of slavery – but there is no such thing as humane slavery, and the Torah version, were it even followed closely, does not even allow for the freeing of slaves who are not Jews.
Michael challenged us to confront these many problems — sins — in our world that that we do not act sufficiently to stop. Over the centuries, as Michael explained, we have not only accepted, but we have implemented many terrible practices.
Of course, alongside of that is much that is love and beauty and wisdom. But we do not build religions and traditions only in order to accentuate the beautiful; we do so in order to deal with the difficult.
But we do not build religions and traditions only in order to accentuate the beautiful; we do so in order to deal with the difficult.
Many teens across the country are eloquently asking whether gun violence has now reached a level where we have almost come to accept mass shootings, and gun violence overall, as normal. As tragedies we need to work to arm and defend ourselves from — and of all things, by using more violence — rather than end.
But I cannot look away from the Israeli Government and mainstream American Jewish response to the horrifying decision on the sale of African asylum seekers by Israel for a fee to Rwanda and Uganda. Just as with slavery or, no doubt, the idea of arming teachers and turning schools into combat zones to prevent gun violence, I wonder how many in our generation will look back and say “how could we not have stopped this? How can we have let this happen?”
You can read basic background on the issue here, but in sum, Israel has never established a formal system to handle refugees and asylum-seekers, which works through the UN system. As a result, tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans, fleeing some of the most brutal regimes in the world, have — following in the footsteps of our ancestors escaping Egypt — crossed Sinai to Israel. Only a tiny handful have, 0.056% to be precise, been granted permanent status; the rest have only had temporary status, many held in a detention center, and soon will be deported. The destinations are Rwanda and Uganda, which will reportedly receive $5,000 per person, and Israelis who assist in the effort (given the backlash from some corners, including El Al pilots) may also get compensated.
Just read the Israeli government’s own propaganda — misleading and false explanations of their responsibilities and lack of a system to process and perhaps integrate those most in need. Hiding this horrifying decision behind the failures of other governments and simply lying about the appropriateness of this action. And then organizations like Federation are willing to simply present facts and not take a stand, saying it is beyond their remit. Which, in the end, serves only to accommodate and conciliate this action. Of course, our community’s leading organizations like AIPAC and others remain entirely silent (some leaders claim to be working behind the scenes, but this also serves more to accommodate and enable these policies than challenge).
Luckily there has been organized resistance from organizations like HIAS and NIF, as well as brave statements from some local Jewish community organizations and leaders, but how can it be that the voices are so few? And I include myself here. I’ve been slow to come around to this issue, to understand the gravity of the situation. But now it is time to recognize that we will soon be condemning tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people to likely persecution, or much worse.
But now it is time to recognize that we will soon be condemning tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people to likely persecution, or much worse.
With seders coming in just more than a month, but deportations beginning sooner, the time is now to demand real action and pressure from American Jewish community organizations From Congress, which provides such strong support to Israel. They must be willing to say publicly that this is wrong, so that those bravely fighting back on the streets of Tel Aviv — 20,000 strong this past weekend — and across Israel have the support they need from the American Jewish community.
We must say that this is an act that our community knows, like slavery, will be an action that we cannot explain or justify in the future. In fact, rather than learning from the story of the Seder, Israel would be sadly switching roles in the story.
If we do not all stand up and act on this, if this is what the Government of Israel and most of our institutions have to teach and to say about how asylum seekers should be treated, then I say this year let us have the kids lead this year’s Seders. We will have given up our place at the head of the table.
Maybe they can finally help us see what the story is about.
The holiday of Purim is almost upon us. Already, we have entered into the month of Adar, in which we are commanded to increase joy. And while our gladness may heighten to the point of ecstatic on the 14th of Adar, Purim is also a holiday of deep contrasts. On our happiest day, Jewish communities gather together to read a political satire about our near-extermination in ancient Persia, in the form of Megillat Esther. We dress in costumes, hiding our face to ostensibly reveal a hidden piece of our true selves. Alcohol flows freely, halva and hamantaschen deck every table, and nothing and no one is safe from parody. This humor is essential, a key to Jewish survival and healing. Wrapping ourselves in laughter, celebratory food and layers of strange clothing serves as a protective layer for our communities to often reach out and touch the darkness that often lies just beneath our joy. The terrors that we are too afraid to touch are often given a playful outlet on Purim, allowing us to make peace with our most painful pieces, and integrate them more healthily into the rest of the year.
This year, Purim falls on March 1st. A month later, on April 1st, Israel’s deportation of asylum seekers will be officially begin- and some individuals have already received warrants from the state.
There are an estimated 30,000 asylum seekers in Israel who stand to be deported. Many of them have been held in a detention center called Holot in the Israeli desert, while others have migrated through Israel, concentrating in south Tel Aviv. The majority of these individuals and families come from Eritrea and Sudan, where they are fleeing decades-long compulsory military service, and the violence of Darfur and the violent clashes between Sudan and South Sudan, respectively.
The language that has been used by the Israeli government in the face of this crisis has at times turned deeply disturbing. Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev has gone so far as to belittle the conditions these asylum seekers have fled, and quipped that Israelis living in south Tel Aviv have become the “refugees in their own homes,” (1) the “real victims” of the situation. It is especially disconcerting to examine this behavior from the perspective of Jewish history, and there is a will to demand that the leaders of a Jewish state operate with a greater sense of mercy, in direct opposition to the treatment Jewish people have received from other nations and empires.
It is important to recognize that for a Jewish audience, this assertion of the “you should know better” narrative is challenging, and is neither effective nor appropriate. It should not upon us, as Jewish people, to abandon particularism, not to fear loss of identity or even annihilation. Recent scholarship on multigenerational trauma has further revealed that events in Jewish history make it even more difficult for us to engender empathy and to let go of animosity towards those perceived as other. (2). We come by our existential fear honestly.
Yet, Jewish tradition demands of us that we push past this anxiety into a place of transcendent compassion, seeking to be a light for world. Jewish culture and identity has been built inextricably in conversation with halacha, the Jewish law system that encourages us to act not according to our first instincts, but by transcending them to enact a more sacred way of walking in the world.
While Jewish history, and Jewish trauma, teaches us to fear those who do not fit into a particularist model, it is in fact exceedingly Jewish— and mandated by our tradition— to push ourselves into a realm of deeper empathy for the “others” in our life, and to take on a greater responsibility for those living amongst us, even as we read texts that force us to come to terms with the fragility of our existence as a people.
This empathy is highlighted particularly through the Purim mitzvah of matanot l’eyvionim, or the giving of tzedakah to the poor. The Hebrew word eyvion is used in discussion of this mitzvah, but the more common word used for a person in poverty is A’ni, one who is poor or in deep suffering. Every Jewish person is obligated to give these gifts, and they may even (according to custom) be given to non-Jews, for the sake of darchei shalom, ways of peace and wholeness. (Mishna Berurah on Shulchan Aruch 649:3) The idea of Darchei Shalom originatea from a rabbinic saying found in the Talmud, in Gittin 61a. In the Talmud’s imagining, non-Jews living amongst a Jewish majority are not begrudged for taking advantage of social security and poverty relief mechanisms within a Jewish community. While originally enacted in fear of provoking conflict with non-Jewish neighbors, the late-18th century German Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, argued that these derechim could be used not only merely to avoid conflict, but to promote peace in the world as an expression of Jewish ideals. In fact, the text continues to suggest that these non-Jewish co-residents can and should be visited when sick, and laid to rest amongst Jews. Those who have come to live in a Jewish space, among Jewish people, especially those who are needy and seek safety, must be cared for. This practice of matanot l’evyonim does not only give us an opportunity to pursue justice through monetary giving, but also gives us an opportunity to create additional blessing and connection within our communities and amongst our neighbors. Instead of retreating from the needy among us in fear, Jewish tradition mandates that we instead stretch out our hands and create connection.
The story of Purim is one of discomfort, displacement, and the real fear of death. It is a story about people who refuse to cower before political intimidation, who deny themselves and fast while they lay out a feast for others, of staring into the face of destruction and not always finding the name of G-d, but at least finding the strength to perform joy under a shadow of existential terror. It is the holiday of hafuch-le-hafuch, of the inside-out and topsy-turvy. May we carry a prayer this Purim to hold our own history and trauma in mercy, and turn ourselves hafuch to open our arms to those fleeing oppression, and seeking asylum and shalom within our own borders.
(Times of Israel, 2/2/2018)
“You Should Know Better”: Expressions of Empathy and Disregard Among Victims of Massive Social Trauma
Julia Chaitin & Shoshana Steinberg
Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2008
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 fell yesteray, 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, by Joey Glick, on the role of chevra kadisha work in enabling gentleness in masculinity, is the seventh and final piece in our week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, 5, by Emily Fishman, and 6, by an anonymous author and Allen Spivak.
A few years ago, I found myself in a crowded café, weeping over my laptop. I had just watched a Tiny Desk performance of the Ysaÿe Barnwell composition “Wanting Memories” by Cantus, a men’s choral group. Barnwell’s song begins with the raw expression of a person who has lost their parent: “You said you’d rock me in the cradle of your arms/You said you’d hold me ‘til the storms of life were gone/You said you’d comfort me in times like these and now I need you/Now I need you/And you are gone.” Barnwell ends her work with a glimpse of the hope waiting at the end of grief: “I thought that you were gone, but now I know you’re with me. You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.”
While these words on their own would be enough to bring me to tears, Cantus’ performance turned me into a blubbering mess. As a cis-man, I had spent years searching for alternatives to poplar media’s representation of a masculinity of detachment and aggression. While I had seen this masculinity challenged by my gentle father and other men role models, there was something different and profound about the experience of listening to Barnwell’s poetry in Cantus’ rendering. For the first time, I heard a choir of men, following the script of a woman’s voice as her words echoed against the walls of grief and vulnerability. That moment of listening gave me a dream: to one day sing in such a choir, finding a range of pain, openness, and intimacy in my own voice amongst a community of men. After years of searching, I was surprised to find my voice and choir in the basement of Bresniak Funeral Home.
Earlier this year, I joined the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston. In my first tahara, I was one of five men on a team preparing the met, the deceased man, for burial. While giving the met an initial bath, our team sang together the Rosho Kedem, a passage drawn from Song of Songs. In it’s biblical context, the female lover of the Song delivers the Rosho Kedem as an ode of masculine beauty while she desperately searches for her lost love.
As we began to sing, I was struck by the dissonance of the Rosho Kedem; we chanted “his locks are curled and black as a raven… his lips are like lilies,” while washing the met’s bluing lips and wispy white hair. The sad strangeness of these words mixed with the longing of the Song’s poetry. As the woman of the Song called out for her lost lover, we called out to our lost met, mourning a life ended. Before I could sink into this sadness, I looked up to see my teammates in action. I saw a man holding the hand of the met and another patting drops of water from the met’s brow. As I watched this choreography of care, I knew that loss was not the last but the first note of our song together. Our voices joined the words of the woman of the Song and the presence of the met’s neshmah, his soul, in singing an aria of poetry, of grief, and of hope.
For years now, I have searched for the melody of my masculinity in the words and poetry of women’s and non-binary folx’s songs. With this search came an implicit understanding that there was a limit the ability of men, particularly cis-men, to compose gentleness; at best, I believed, we could play out weak imitations of our siblings’ and parents’ music. The men of the hevra kadisha have taught me otherwise. Their care has shown me the possibility that men can contribute new harmonies and timbre to the ongoing composition of our people’s melody of tenderness and care for the living and for the dead.
Joey Glick is a first year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. When not learning, he can be found playing old hymns on his banjo with friends.
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 today, 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 double-feature includes two perspectives on talking about chevra work. An anonymous author discusses the tradition around remaining anonymous, while Allen Spivak write about why he does talk about his chevra kadisha involvement. It is Part 6 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, and 5, by Emily Fishman.
The Value of Anonymity
As the Chair of our congregational Chevra Kadisha, I am often asked by the mourner who they can thank for doing the Taharah for their loved one. In response, I explain that it is a time honored tradition that we do not reveal the identities of the Taharah team for any specific Taharah. For most of us on the Chevra Kadisha, it is the anonymity that is a strong attraction to being part of this group. The idea that we would be thanked for doing this work is not only strange but creates a certain anxiety.
What lies behind this reluctance to accept credit and the thanks of the mourner for having engaged in this holy work on behalf of someone they loved? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that our work is not on behalf of the mourner. Our work is on behalf of the departed. We deeply believe that each person is created in the image of G-d, both the body and the soul. Thus, we are committed to honoring the mortal body that allowed the undying soul to be known to those who loved and and were loved by the deceased. By tending to the body of the deceased, we are able to honor the life that was lived and prepare this person for a return to its origins in the earth. Since our work is on behalf of the deceased, it is work that cannot be acknowledged by the only one whose thanks would be appropriate. For this reason, it is called a Chesed Shel Emet – an act of true loving kindness.
But for many of us, our anonymity is also its own reward. We are engaged in work that is deeply spiritual. When we carefully undress and bathe the body, cleaning off the debris of the last moments of life, we do so with the love and care that we hope will someday be shown to us. We are able to show our love for this person whom we may not have known in life, but we now care for in the most intimate of ways. We are strict about the purification ritual so that we have no concern that this last rite is done correctly and mindfully. In dressing the deceased, we take care that the clothing is adjusted just so, the knots have the right number of twists and we establish through our Hebrew readings the linkage between these articles of clothing and their Biblical antecedents. Finally, we place the body of the deceased as gently as possible into the casket and close the lid, the last people to see the deceased in this life.
The rituals of Taharah never fail to affect the participants and create a holy bond in a place where holiness may seem distant. The porcelain, formica and stainless steel where we perform the Taharah have none of the warmth that we associated with a holy place. And so, we cling to this sense of the ineffable that informs us that we too will someday be lying on a preparation table with a team unknown to us who will lovingly prepare us for our journey into whatever lies on the other side of death. We hope that we too will be cared for as we have cared for the deceased in front of us. For us to be made known for this work is to diminish the bond that we have created between the Taharah team and this image of G-d that was before us.
Why I Talk about My Hevra Involvement
by Allen Spivak, a member of the Boston Community Hevra Kadisha.
I’m never shy about telling folks I’m part of a hevra kadisha. When I tell them what that is and what we do, I’m never sure what facial expression to expect-confusion/shock/disgust/admiration/bewilderment.
I get it. This is not your typical (read “normal”) activity that people choose for their post-retirement years (neither is being a sculptor but I do that too). And did I mention that my wife (Sherry Grossman) is also a member of the hevra kadisha! But ‘being a Jew’ means different things to each of us, and for me, connecting to, participating in and supporting the community (in large and small ways) is a central responsibility.
Also, I do not shy away from what others may describe as the ‘unsavory things’ in life. I spent 12 years working in construction, and then after I got a social work degree, worked with people who were homeless or had HIV/AIDS or had addiction issues or abused intimate partners or suffered trauma (or a combination of all of them). So participating in a hevra kadisha was just another way to offer service to a community in need.
In addition to the ‘serving the community’ aspect of the hevra kadisha, I found that participating in the purification ritual of tahara helped me to view death differently. You see my father died when I was 11 years old and as a result my experience of death left me ‘stuck’ as that young boy overwhelmed by the dying experience. As a result, I avoided confronting death at all costs by avoiding shiva calls, making excuses for not attending a funeral, and never writing condolence notes. This has all changed for me as I participated in the hevra kadisha, I’ve really grown up and evolved. Now my experience around death feels more and more appropriate to my age. I’ve finally learned to encounter death through adult eyes.
As a final thought, I want to say that my experience and sensibilities when entering the tahara room (with my team members) feels similar to entering my sculpture studio. In both cases, the space is sacred, a sanctuary for doing holy work. As in the tahara room, each tool in my studio has its place. The holy texts we recite during tahara that adorn the walls are similar to the quotes and photographs that adorn my studio walls and that inspire me. But more than the conditions of the physical space, doing ‘the work’ in each of these spaces resonates with virtually the same intensity, sensitivity, sense of timelessness and spiritual uplift for me. It was not something I anticipated or expected, but I am so grateful to have physical ‘spaces’ in my life that offer me such rich opportunities. Baruch HaShem– thank God.
Thechevra 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 double-post, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, on performing tahara for loved ones, is part 5 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, and 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein.
I hope it’s okay that I call you that. I refer to all old women as Bubbie in my head, even the ones who aren’t grandmothers, even the ones who aren’t Ashkenazi Jews. I hope you know that I mean it as a term of deep respect as well as endearment. I’m new at this whole thing. This is only the second tahara team I’ve ever been on.
Several weeks from now, one of the women who is on this team with me will point out that no one else refers to the meyta, the deceased, as “Bubbie”. She attributes this to the fact that many of them are older than me and see their mothers or themselves in the meyta. I hope I still call people Bubbie even when I’m older.
Thirty years ago, a woman was about to give birth nine miles from here at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was 33 and had already raised her stepdaughter to teenagehood, but was pregnant for the first time. The nurses and doctors and other staff in the room didn’t know much about her life story, just the relevant stats: she was 38 weeks pregnant, her water had broken about four hours earlier, and she couldn’t go into full labor because of a prior surgery on her uterus. They didn’t know about her career, her older daughter, her favorite music to listen to, her favorite dishes to cook. But their relationship with her wasn’t perfunctory, either. They were in her life for a particular task: delivering me safely into the world. They were extremely careful and attentive and knowledgeable and reassuring and effective. Maybe they checked the charts on their next shift and found that she and her husband had named me Emily. Maybe they didn’t, because there was the next person who needed their help.
I bring this up because I don’t know much about you, Bubbie. I know your name and your age and that you have four children. The lack of more intimate or personal details about your life doesn’t mean our interaction here is unfeeling. I am preparing your body for its last journey, just as the staff at that hospital welcomed me from my first journey.
My first task today is to clean the bright pink polish off your toenails. Someone painted your toe nails recently, probably within the last week. They did a very neat job. Maybe it was your grandchild. Or maybe it was someone who was paid to help care for you. Either way, someone painted your toes, which was not at all necessary to your well-being but hopefully you liked the color, and enjoyed the feeling of someone handling your feet with such care. I wonder if you really had bare feet at all in the past week, or if it was a secret that you shared, hidden under those ridiculously itchy hospital socks.
It’s time for the rechitza, the first washing of your body. Was your first bath also at the Brigham like mine? Was it even at a hospital? Was it in this country? Anyway, during the rechitza I see that there’s a spot on the back of your elbow that looks like it was almost a pressure sore. A few days ago, this would have been cause for alarm. Now, it doesn’t matter. You’ve finished the work of needing to keep your weight shifting and rotating. That bright spot is just another part of your skin.
After the rechitza is done, it’s time for the tahara, the pouring of 24 quarts of water in one continuous stream over the body, touching every surface. We prepared the three buckets ahead of time. I’m not pouring one of them today so I take a step back, one hand on the sheet that protects your modesty. In the other hand, I have a hand towel. We’ll go through about eight of them drying you off before we put on the multi-part burial garments.
The first part of your body that I dry is your right breast. Were you self-conscious of them as a teenager? Did your lovers help or hinder you overcoming that feeling? You have four children– did you nurse any of them? All of them? I know formula was popular when your children were been born. I think about all of those moments: the ones where you stared into their eyes and dreamed of their future in peace and the ones where you thought you would absolutely hit the limits of your ability to cope if this child did not fall asleep in the next five minutes.
Every inch of your body is marvelous. Truly. כֻּלָּךְ יָפָה רַעְיָתִי וּמוּם אֵין בָּךְ Every part of you is fair, my beloved; you are without blemish (4:7). I love that we recite from Song of Songs during this ritual.
After a few minutes of somewhat awkward maneuvering, you’re dressed in your last clothes. These pants with no openings, these awkward and beautiful knots which tie them at the waist, which would surely not suffice to actually hold them up– but there’s no need for function. This bonnet which covers your silver hair. The shirt and the overshirt. To tell the truth, it’s kind of hot in here today, and if you were alive, I would dress you only in one layer. But you’re not, and this is how we do it.
We place you in the casket, tie a few more knots, and swaddle you up. I know almost nothing about your life in the more than ninety years since you were first swaddled, with awe and love, the same way we are doing it now. But you did it, Bubbie. You’ve arrived at the last event. We close the top of the casket, which is not to be reopened. We were the last ones to witness your physical life. Tomorrow, the people who really know you will gather to mourn and celebrate and cry and laugh and bury. I’m going home now to drink some tea and get ready to teach my preschoolers in the morning. You remember what Sunday nights are like.
The writer is part of the Boston Community Chevra Kadisha. For more information, please contact info@HevraKadisha.org.
Photo: Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, author of the second part of this double-post.
Thechevra 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 double-post, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, on performing tahara for loved ones, is part 4 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, and 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips.
Tahara for a Friend
by Elissa Felder.
Elissa is a member of the Providence, RI, Chevra Kadisha. She is interested in opportunities to speak with folks in the area and farther away about the work of the Chevra. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several times a week the services of our chevra kadisha are called upon by the local funeral home. According to Jewish belief our body must be buried in the ground as soon as possible. In preparation for this our body must be ritually washed (tahara) and dressed in plain, white cotton shrouds. This tahara is performed in the same way for everyone. Death is a great equalizer.
Sometimes I am called upon to wash someone whom I have known in life.
In these cases it takes a huge amount of emotional effort to step into the funeral home and into the room where my friend awaits us.
It takes courage to starkly face her death.
The form of the relationship I once had with her has changed. We can no longer talk to each other in the way we used to. A new and unfamiliar way of interacting has begun. I am so sad.
The world has lost a wonderful woman
Our job, as members of the chevra, is to help her transition from life in this world to her life in the next world. She is entering into a new existence.
Death begins the process of the soul separating from and hovering over its body until burial.
In the morgue our souls become intertwined in a new way. I ‘feel’ her soul in that room
She is very much there, aware of and watching over us.
The reality of losing her is amplified by being so intimate with her body. We treat every woman in our care with incredible respect and love. Yet whilst washing my friend this need to treat her in a dignified way becomes amplified. We are engaged in an act that she would want us to do for her yet she can’t thank or interact with us in any physical way. It feels strange and foreign.
Against our will we are born and against our will we die. Our soul is who we are. It is our essence. It is holy, coming from the “Breath of God.” Our body, in contrast, is the vessel which houses our soul and which acquires holiness after a lifetime of togetherness.
I am overwhelmed by the enormity of what I am doing!
It is hard to comprehend that I am actually preparing my friend for the next step in her journey
She can not thank, speak to, hug or cry with us
We don’t need thanks; we give with no expectation of reward.
I wash her with a broken heart.
Having known her in life the experience of being with her in death is truly beyond words.
I feel so honored to be there to wash, clothe, and finally embrace her as we wrap the final belt around her waist
I see, feel and love her.
The washing and the dressing is done silently and reverently with tears streaming down my face.
One more act of helping and loving her.
My dear friend resisted receiving help in life and is now forced to receive it.
Her death feels tragic
Whilst preparing her I am acutely aware of how grateful I am to be alive.
I am so grateful and honored to be the one to help gently lower her into her plain pine box and to be the last to see her.
Goodbye my sweet friend
Please forgive me for anything I have done to embarrass, harm or hurt you
Everything we did was to help you get you ready for the next phase of your journey
Pray for us
Advocate for us on high
Come greet us when it’s our turn to be born into the next world
Taharah for My Aunt
by Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein
Malkah Binah is a member of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia. If you would like to learn about this Chevra, contact Rabbi Linda Holtzman at email@example.com.
I have been blessed to participate in hevrei kadisha in three different Jewish communities, and through the process of performing taharot, the ritual purification and preparation of a body for burial, I have learned about kindness and gentleness and experienced the deep calm that accompanies being present to the truth of our mortality.
I’d like to share about a particularly special experience I had two years ago with tahara. This was the experience of my first time performing a tahara for a family member. When I heard that my Aunt Dina died, I drove to Upstate New York where she had lived to help prepare for her funeral. Family members had not been present with Aunt Dina during her final days, and I noticed the desire within me to participate in her tahara. In our hevra kadisha in Philadelphia, family occasionally ask to participate, so I knew that this was a possibility. I contacted the organizer of the local hevra, who told me that I was welcome to participate and gave me directions for how to enter the funeral home. She then added, “I just need to ask you one thing. Are you shomer mitzvot (one who keeps the commandments)?” I had never been asked that question and it took me a moment to sort out how to respond. The organizer was an Orthodox woman who was serving as a gatekeeper for communal ritual, and my response would affect my ability to participate. I answered, “yes”, knowing that she might not share my definition of shomer mitzvot– I’m a female rabbi married to a woman who turns on lights on Shabbat; yet, on the other hand, serving the Divine Beloved through Jewish practice is core to how my life is structured. Thus, I felt that I was answering with integrity by saying “yes”. This was one of those “better not to give too many details” moments.
The three women who were members of the local hevra were warmly welcoming and grateful for my presence. They found out that I read Hebrew and assigned me the role of reading the ritual texts as the tahara progressed. Aunt Dina had behaved in cruel and manipulative ways towards close family members (not towards me), and it was profoundly healing for me to witness the love and gentleness with which these women washed my aunt’s body. One of the challenges in supporting Aunt Dina when she was alive, particularly for my father who was her little brother, is that she would turn against him when he tried to help her. In this moment, the giving and receiving was pure.
When performing a tahara, I have often noticed how the person’s face relaxes and she becomes more accepting of her death as we prepare her body. This was true with Aunt Dina. These women taught me that even a person who has been cruel deserves love and honor. We are all equal in death.
Following the washing and pouring of water, we dressed her and wrapped her in the white linen sheet and left her on the table for the funeral home staff to transfer her to her casket. I realized that I had forgotten the jewelry that we had taken off of her in the room, so I went back. I am grateful for that moment– the opportunity to lean down and give her a kiss.
Below is a poem I wrote following Aunt Dina’s death.
My father tells me about his sister
I did not know
she kept their Mama on a respirator
ignored Mama’s let me die
she scolded you failed to return for Mama’s funeral
I did not know
of his inheritance
while shouting you want to steal my money
She is dead. He is sad.
I wash and prepare her for burial
wrap her in white
lean down and kiss her, then kiss her again
July 6, 2016
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein is a community leader, ritual facilitator, and beloved teacher of spiritual practices based in Philadelphia. She has a gift for holding the space for individuals and groups to discover their resilience, courage, and deep knowing. She is the author of a chapter on “Jewish Rituals across the Life Cycle” in A Guide to Jewish Practice (RRC Press). She keeps a blog at thrivingspirit.org.
Jewschool by Rabbi Regina Sandler-phillips - 1M ago
Thechevra 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
“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.
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 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 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.
Thechevra 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 2 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Part 1.
By Nina Rubin, a member of the Northern Colorado Chevrah Kaddisha, which is based in Fort Collins, but serves all of Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming.
In the late 1980’s we were a very small, very young community. Fort Collins was a small town. We were all from somewhere else, brought here by either the university or the high tech industry in its infancy. We had a lot of children and very few older people. There had not been an organized Jewish community here for nearly 50 years. We organized our community around a school for our children, which had until then been our primary focus.
One of our members, a young father with a heart condition, suddenly died. We had not had to deal with death in our community. The family wanted him to be buried locally and in a Jewish cemetery. We had 24 hours to create and open a Jewish cemetery. We approached the city about taking a section in an underutilized city cemetery. The city agreed and allowed us to buy plots in our section as we needed them; they even donated the extra spaces needed for a barrier to separate the Jewish section from the larger cemetery. The community came together and opened our cemetery within the 24 hours and honored the wishes of the family. Another year passed and another member passed suddenly. This time the family wanted a complete “kosher burial”. So the community came together again and we had a group of people who sat shmira for 24 hours with the met (corpse). The Chevrah from Denver arrived to complete the Tahara. By this time the community had gained a number of Bubbies who came to live near their grandchildren. When one of our beloved Bubbies passed, we had a student Rabbi named Andrea, who suggested that we complete the Tahara ourselves. We had more volunteers than we could use and worked our way through a borrowed Tahara manual. After that the Chevrah grew and we continued to provide women’s Chevrah services for our community.
In 2001, one of our long term members brought her father here for hospice care. He was resistant to the move, as he wanted to make sure he would be able to have a completely kosher Jewish burial. She assured him he could, and he consented to the move. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, (and right after the 9/11 attacks) the man died. In the past I had put out phone calls when we needed volunteers. Both men and women sat shmira but we had no men who had ever participated in a Tahara. I started making phone calls and was able to reach some men, who each declined my offer. I left phone messages with those I could not reach and prayed for the best. Once I had 4 volunteers I breathed a sigh of relief. Tradition would allow me to sit with my back to the met and guide them through the ritual. At that point the phone started to ring. Each of the men I had talked to called back to say they had reconsidered and many of my messages were returned by additional volunteers. The general response was that, in this week when we were still so traumatized by the 9/11 attack, it was important to participate in this proper Jewish burial. Fifteen men showed up and nothing I could say would change any of their minds. I explained that it would be very difficult to work with 15 men in the room. Still, no one left. I explained the ritual and they studied the book and liturgy and worked it out together, all 15 of them. After they were completed, we had another hour of discussion about the healing nature of the experience for all of them; the opportunity to feel less helpless and to have meaningful service that they could do.
In the years that followed, the Chevrah continued to grow. We had a unique problem with our volunteers: it was difficult to find enough meaningful work for all the people who wanted to participate. With over 90 volunteers, we increased our services to include baking for shiva minyans, sewing takhrichim (burial shrouds), and making our own aron (casket). At times we have had to shorten the shifts to only an hour for those sitting shmira, or having multiple people sit together to accommodate all those that want to serve. We have developed a “Shmira box” full of donations from those so moved. It include psalms, books, meditations and poetry, books that educate about the process and handmade blankets to keep folks warm. The box is in a constant state of evolution as people add their own meaningful items to enable those sitting in shmira to chant, pray, learn, and feel surrounded by their Chevrah.
By re-framing the Chevrah Kaddish as an opportunity rather than an obligation, we have formed a holy community that includes all members of the community, from the very young to the very old, each participating at their own comfort level. Some of our members became involved when they came to make their own final arrangements and became active participants. This is still a university town and students are also an important part of the team. I am proud to be a part of this holy community.
Chevrah volunteers have a sense of, belonging, satisfaction and a knowledge that their service matters, which enhances the identity the greater Jewish community.