You haven’t fully experienced Judaism until you’ve helped a soul transition from this world to the next by performing the traditional washing of a deceased body.
That’s according to David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort) a national organization that advocates for increased grass-roots participation in the Jewish burial and bereavement process. The organization held its 11th annual conference in Philadelphia from June 9-11.
“People who are willing to literally wrap their arms around death, to literally hold death close to them, are wrestling with the question of death — and as a result — life,” said Zinner, who lives near Washington, D.C., and has pushed for more synagogues and communities to form what’s known as a chevrah kadishah, or holy society.
“All of a sudden, when you are close to real death, life takes on a whole different meaning,” he said. After performing a tahara, a ritual washing before burial, many people end up thinking that they “better do something important and precious with their lives. How silly it was not to have recognized it a long time ago.”
About 120 people — most of them communal volunteers — came from as far as London and Vancouver for the three-day conference, which was held at Mikveh Israel on Independence Mall and at a nearby hotel.
The conference focused on two major tracts. One revolved around the challenges faced by nonprofit Jewish cemeteries, including financial issues and how cemeteries deal with burying cremated remains or non-Jewish spouses.
The other was dedicated to the chevrah kadishah movement. The traditional rituals date back to at least the Middle Ages. Sessions ranged from practical concerns such as how to make sure volunteers don’t get injured or ill from working with the dead to examining the tahara liturgy and discussing Jewish concepts of the soul and the afterlife.
The Jewish requirement for an in-ground burial is mentioned in the Bible, though many of the traditions evolved over time and don’t come directly from the ancient Jewish texts. In addition to the ritual washing, the pre-burial rituals also involve dressing the body in white garments, and thus evoking what was worn by the high priests in ancient Israel. It is also traditional for members of a chevrah kadishah to remain with a body at all times until burial.
Early in the 20th century, there were many chevrah kadishah groups in Philadelphia, mostly affiliated with landsmanshaften, or immigrant fraternal groups.
But as time went on, many non-Orthodox Jews began to dispense with traditional practices and left most burial details to Jewish funeral homes. The funeral industry arose as a result of the Civil War, due to the mass number of bodies that had to be buried.
Philadelphia has been somewhat less active than other places like Washington, D.C., or the Bay area in forming contemporary burial societies, according to Zinner.
For well over 60 years, there’s been a communal chevrah kadishah, under Orthodox auspices, and comprised of male and female volunteers, called Chevrah B’nai Moshe.
Jewish funeral directors typically make families aware that the tahara ceremony is an option, according to Adam Levine, an owner of Joseph Levine & Sons, which runs several funeral homes and the Haym Salomon Memorial Park cemetery.
Levine, who is also a B’nai Moshe member, said he’s seen an increase over the last two decades in the number of non-Orthodox families expressing interest in some or all of the traditional burial practices, which is all for the better as far as he is concerned.
“When someone dies, something happens, something that the chevrah kadishah does will help that soul to get to another place,” he said in a separate interview. “I firmly believe that there is a soul.”
Among non-Orthodox streams, only the Reconstructionist movement has an active chevrah kadishah here. Rabbi Linda Holtzman started the group in the late 1980s because she said that Orthodox volunteers were, at the time, reluctant to perform the tahara on individuals, mostly men, who had died from AIDS.
Since then, Holtzman said, the Reconstructionist group — which has about 45 women volunteers and fewer than 10 men — has served people that the Orthodox group might not, such as families who request a tahara before cremation. Holtzman estimated that her group performs about 15 rituals a year.
“I often think that is the most sacred thing that I do in my life. It is the most sacred act,” said Holtzman, who, like Levine, did not attend the conference.
Reached by email, Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood said there have long been discussions to start a Conservative chevrah kadishah, but it hasn’t yet materialized. Cooper thinks there is a need for one since a Conservative group might be willing to adhere to wishes that an Orthodox one might not, such as burying a woman with a tallit or allowing a family member to view the body after the tahara.
During a conference session on organizing chevrah kadishah, Zinner said he wants the volunteer groups to take a more expansive view of their missions and think about doing everything from comforting mourners to negotiating funeral prices with local funeral homes. Zinner, who has argued that grass-roots organizations should be doing some of the things often done by funeral homes, sparked a debate among attendees about the proper role of a chevrah kadishah.
There was also plenty of talk about how to interest younger generations in end-of-life issues.
Sydney Byrne, a 23-year-old member of Emanuel Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Oklahoma City, was probably the youngest participant attending the conference.
At 14, Bryne — a Columbia University graduate — first went with her mother to spend a night with a body and recited psalms. At 18, she performed her first tahara. Leaders of her community’s chevrah kadishah, she said, clearly have her pegged as someone who will be part of the group for years.
Though she’s not sure what the future holds, taking part in the burial ritual has forever shaped her view of Judaism.
The realities of death and burial were “engraved in me at a really young age that it is just a part of life.”