Sacred service of Chevra Kadisha now available to all denominations in Boston

Those who perform the work of a Chevra Kadisha (Sacred Fellowship or Sacred Society) are engaging in Chesed Shel Emet, an act of loving kindness.   The Chevra Kadisha is a group of community- or synagogue-based volunteers who care for the dead, from death to burial, according to Jewish law and ritual.  The Rabbis considered this work to be among the greatest of mitzvoth since the person served has no knowledge and can never offer thanks.

For the first time, training for Jewish practice in caring for the deceased, known as tahara training, is available for Jews of all denominations in Greater Boston. 

“It began with people’s personal experiences,” said Judith Himber of North Cambridge, president of the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston.  “In the aftermath of the loss of my husband four years ago I took a tahara course on-line.  I was very, very moved by the history and mission of the Chevra Kadisha and the spiritual and emotional effects of this service on those involved.”  Himber also encountered a fellow congregant at Temple Emunah in Lexington who had been involved with a Chevra Kadisha in New Jersey, but had been unsuccessful in joining a group in the Boston area.  “The Chevra Kadisha here has served so long and so beautifully, but this man was not accepted because he was not orthodox.  This is not the case in most areas of the country.”  

Hal Miller-Jacobs of Lexington, treasurer of the Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, became interested when his first cousin, a rabbi in Washington, DC, died suddenly in his late 50s.  “I was asked to take care of arrangements,” said Miller-Jacobs, who was invited by the Washington Chevra Kadisha to participate in tahara training.  “This was the most powerful Jewish experience I have had in my life.”  After his return to Boston he inquired about receiving further training, but was not allowed to participate.  He and Himber took action.  “I said to Judith, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this experience were available to more people?’ and I think we hit a nerve.” 

The Community Hevra Kadisha was the result.  Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah reached out to the Mass. Board of rabbis to see if there was an interest in training and got an overwhelmingly positive response.  A partnership with Hebrew College was put together.  The college had wanted a place for rabbinical students to learn and to participate in this mitzvah.  Training was held at Hebrew College in Newton in two sessions on October 2 and 3 and in an all-day session at Temple Emunah on October 6.  Over 100 people participated. 

Himber found the training to be as powerful as she had heard.  “I was worried about how I’d feel, but in a short time I felt a wave of closeness and compassion for the meyta (deceased, female).  I understood that this is what it is to be human and how vulnerable a person is between death and burial, in need of care, compassion and respect.  You know how we’re supposed to say 100 blessings a day?  I said at least 30 by the time I got to my car.  I said thanks for the sky, for being able to see and hear.  I know what it means to be alive in a way I’d never felt before, and the feeling hasn’t left me.” 

Rabbi Lerner was involved in a Chevra Kadisha when in rabbinical school.  “This is a very exciting opportunity for the community,” said Lerner, “and will be an educational experience for the wider community by highlighting a tradition that is not as well known as some.” 

Tahara involves preparing the meyt/meyta for burial, physically and spiritually.  The meyt is washed and ritually purified, dressed in a plain white muslin garment and laid in a simple coffin.  Prayers are recited at every stage of the process.  Members of a Chevra Kadisha also provide shmira, guarding the deceased from the moment of death until burial.  According to tradition, between death and burial the soul is on a journey and in need of the companionship of others.  This usually involves remaining in the building until the funeral.  The society also provides these services for a meyt mitzvah, anyone who might not have family or other connections to take care of these issues.  All activities are kept strictly confidential. 

Gretchen Brandt of Natick took part in the October training.  “About 14 years ago, a member of our community at Temple Israel of Natick passed away right before Rosh Hashanah,” said Brandt.  “The Chevra Kadisha was not able to provide shmira for him during the holiday.  The temple community came together and did so, 24 hours a day, until the funeral.  I believe that this event was transformational in the life of our community and that providing tahara training is the next step.  I want to be part of this evolving transformation in which we take care of each other throughout our lives and even after our lives come to an end.”   

Traditionally, Chevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be formed wherever a Jewish community was established, with duties ranging from pronouncing the death to maintaining the cemetery, serving rich and poor alike.  Membership was typically handed down from father to son.  Rules and practices were codified in the 1300s.

David Zinner, who conducted the training, is executive director of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), an educational organization which supports Chevra Kadishas and bereavement committees throughout the US and Canada.  “Chevra Kadisha ideally does the whole continuum of end-of-life from serious illness to mourning, and that’s what we educate people about,” said Zinner.  “We talk about the spiritual, about the soul, prayers and emotions.  In addition to the basics of preparing a body we discuss the role of the community in providing comfort to the family.”  Zinner has conducted over 100 training sessions all over the country.  “The Boston people were fantastic,” he said.  “They were interested in learning as much as they could, and they asked great questions.”  Participants included laypeople, rabbis, rabbinical students, chaplains, cantors, and medical professionals.  “The experience is meaningful and elevating and spiritual,” said Zimmer. “The fact you’re washing a dead body is almost secondary.  God’s presence is overwhelming.  There has been consistent reporting by those who take the training that it connected them in a way no other Jewish practice has.”

“It might be easier for some to start with shmira,” suggested Rabbi Lerner for anyone considering the training, “or just come to a training to learn.”  While continuing its community outreach, the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston is also seeking leaders for tahara teams and establishing a rabbinical board to provide guidance. “I want to stress that this is for the entire community, not just conservative synagogues,” said Miller-Jacobs. “And I like to think that in some spiritual way maybe my cousin orchestrated this from wherever his soul rests.”

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