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SPRING 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 3


by Sue Fishkoff

Even though the heart of the traditional Jewish funeral
process--the physical
preparation of a body for
burial--can be difficult,
even frightening, for some,
more and more Reform Jews
are learning to perform this sobering task, and reporting
that it brings them a deep
sense of fulfillment.

Seven women, their heads covered with scarves, gather outside a small room at a northern California funeral home. They quietly file into a stark, sterile room, where a woman's body lies covered on a slanted table. In silence, the members of Temple Beth El in Aptos begin their work: carefully cleaning the body; slowly pouring water over it while saying the ritual words; lovingly wrapping it in a clean, white shroud; reverently placing it, finally, into a simple pine coffin. The only sounds are the dripping of water and the women's whispered prayers.

Tahara--ritual cleansing of the dead. Tachrichim--dressing the body according to ritual law. Along with shemirah, or round-the-clock watching of the body until it is placed in the ground, these are the cornerstones of Jewish burial performed by a chevra kadisha, or holy society, a group of trained volunteers who, in traditional Jewish communities, prepare the dead and support the mourners through the halachically prescribed grieving process.

Tahara, tachrichim, and shemirah, indeed chevra kadisha itself, have not typically been part of Reform practice. But just as in recent decades the Reform Movement has readopted and reinterpreted other traditional Jewish rituals from the brit milah to the mikveh, so today, especially in the last half a dozen years, an increasing number of Reform congregations are turning their attention to the rites surrounding death and burial. "We, as Reform Jews, have to reclaim this practice," says Paula Marcus, who serves as cantor of Temple Beth El and is a founding member of the congregation's seven-year-old chevra kadisha. "For so many years it's been held tightly by the Orthodox; we want to make tahara open to a different model."

Even though the heart of the traditional Jewish funeral process--the physical preparation of a body for burial--can be difficult, even frightening, for some, those Reform Jews who are learning to perform this sobering task report that it brings them a deep sense of fulfillment. "When we're working together in this ancient tradition, doing the work of our ancestors, taking care of the body of one of our sisters, we're like souls working together," says Beth El member Diane Levine. "There's a kind of awe knowing I'm going in to face the end of life, and the maker of life. There's a powerful presence with us in the room; it's when I feel closest to God. When we leave that room and go back to our lives, we know we've done a very important deed--a real mitzvah." In the words of Cantor Scott Colbert, who founded the three-year-old chevra kadisha at Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, Georgia: "There is no better way to demonstrate care than by observing the mitzvah of caring for our own dead."

Throughout history, Jewish communities have looked at caring for their dead as a communal responsibility, like caring for the poor, the needy, the widow, and the orphan. The traditional Jewish funeral was simple, yet respectful. It was profoundly egalitarian, designed to avoid embarrassing those who could not afford an opulent ceremony. Every Jew, whether rich or poor, was wrapped in a white linen shroud and buried either directly in the ground or in a plain wood coffin, so that the body could easily, in the words of Genesis, return to the dust from which it was formed.

In our day, however, caring for the dead has been turned over to funeral professionals. Mourners gather at a funeral home, listen to the eulogy, and, if they go to the cemetery, sometimes rush away before the coffin has been lowered into the ground.

"There's a lot of fear surrounding death, as if somehow it's contagious," says David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v'Nichum, a three-year-old nonprofit resource center for information on Jewish death and burial. In June 2003, Zinner's Washington-based organization, devoted to "returning control of Jewish death rituals to the community," sponsored the first national conference on chevra kadisha, attracting almost 200 people from every Jewish stream. He attributes the Reform Movement's increased interest in chevra kadisha to a combination of factors, including "a conviction that it represents a more humane way to care for the dead."

Rabbi Daniel Fink of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho agrees. Several years ago, while attending a graveside funeral, he stayed behind after everyone had left "and saw the fellows wearing dirty overalls, laughing, smoking, as they filled the grave. I thought, we should take care of people who die in a way that is respectful, by people who know and care about this person." Urging his members to form a chevra kadisha, he first solicited congregants working as healthcare professionals. "I thought they'd be more comfortable with a body," he says. Whereas most Reform congregations have brought in an expert to train their new chevra kadisha, in the wilds of Idaho, Rabbi Fink led his own tahara training, using what he learned from books and videos. Today a core group of about a dozen men and a dozen women who have completed his training assist in all aspects of burial, including importing soil from Israel to place inside the casket and purchasing other materials, such as shrouds, from a Judaica store in New York City.

Not everyone in Rabbi Fink's 200-member congregation chooses to be buried by the chevra kadisha. "But it's there as an option," he explains. "I say to them, Jewish tradition has a tremendous amount of wisdom in dealing with death and mourning. American culture has erred in professionalizing death, turning it into an industry. To have the deceased handled by those who knew and cared for him or her, rather than by minimum-wage workers, is being true to the values of Reform Judaism."

Another reason for the increased interest in chevrei kadisha, David Zinner says, is the rising cost of funerals, which can run to tens of thousands of dollars, compounded by the fact that most families make decisions about caskets and cemeteries in a state of grief following the death of a loved one. "Our goal isn't to keep prices down, but to keep funerals simple," Zinner explains. Simpler funerals, of course, usually mean less expensive ones, which is just fine with Zinner. "We shouldn't be spending lots of money on this," he says.

"On Our Terms"

While more Reform congregations are returning to traditional burial rituals to suit their own practical needs and spiritual values, many are doing so "on our terms," says Rabbi David Fine, regional director of the Union's Pacific Northwest Council. For example, according to halachah, men prepare men's bodies and women prepare women's bodies. Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise adheres to that stipulation for reasons of modesty, but has abandoned the Orthodox requirement that the shomer who sits with the prepared body also be of the same sex. Explains Rabbi Fink: "Once the body is clothed and in the casket, we no longer make these gender distinctions."

At Temple Beth El in Aptos, California there is no men's chevra kadisha, so the women's group prepares bodies of both sexes. They will also perform tahara on a body that is going to be donated to science, which is prohibited by Orthodox law, and will bury people who've asked to be laid to rest in their street clothes rather than the traditional shroud--but not just any street clothes. They turned down the request of one woman who'd asked that she be buried in a bright red dress. "That doesn't fit the kavanah of the ritual," says Paula Marcus. "As a chevra kadisha, we look at the intention of the tradition and decide what we will and will not do. We're not bound by halachah, but we weigh what's meaningful to us, as a group."

Some Reform chevrei kadisha are modifying the traditional liturgy used while performing tahara. "We made it more egalitarian," says Cantor Colbert of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta. "The first prayer you say over the body mentions 'the blood of your circumcision' that will 'save you from fiery hell.' We've changed that considerably; we feel the ritual should be the same for men and women."

Communal Chevrei Kadisha

Some Reform congregations are joining with Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and/or Renewal groups to meet Jewish end-of-life needs as a total community. In Ashland, Oregon, for example, Temple Emek Shalom and a Jewish Renewal chavurah have formed a communal chevra kadisha. Members of either congregation will perform tahara or act as shomerim for deceased Jews, no matter their affiliation. "After the funeral, the chevra kadisha provides the first meal, and then the shiva is taken over by each congregation, if the family wants it," says Emek Shalom's program director Judith Visser. In Des Moines, Iowa, Temple B'nai Jeshurun's chevra kadisha is run jointly with local Conservative and Orthodox congregations. "When a congregant dies and the family wants a ritual burial, I call the Orthodox rabbi and we put together a chevra kadisha team to go to the local burial home under his supervision," says B'nai Jeshurun's executive director Alan Perlman. As for tahara, about a year ago a young Orthodox rabbi ran three training sessions for individuals interested in performing tahara, and Perlman became the sole Reform participant. "Reform Judaism is about providing options," Perlman notes. "At our congregation we now offer everything from interfaith burial to tahara."

Although more Reform congregations are forming chevrei kadisha than ever before, Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union's Department of Jewish Family Concerns, says that only a minority of congregations offer full tahara-to-shomer chevra kadisha services. More typical are congregations like the 500-member Suburban Temple in Wantagh, New York, which has a shiva minyan but no chevra kadisha. "We typically hold shiva for several nights in the home, led by the rabbi or cantor, and we have an active group of lay people trained to fill in when needed," says Dr. Harold Hastings, vice president for religious services. The most significant change is a growing commitment on the part of lay leaders to engage in the rituals surrounding death and dying. "When I was ordained in 1972," says Rabbi Address, "you knew what to expect at a Reform funeral: eulogy, going to the cemetery, internment, shiva. Now there's more of a desire for others, besides the rabbi and cantor, to participate."

Alternative Arrangements

For some congregations, greater involvement in end-of-life issues means entering into contracts with funeral homes or taking over the homes themselves in order to ensure that their members are treated respectfully and fairly. In the Washington, DC area, for example, an interdenominational Jewish Funeral Practices Committee provides a wide array of funeral advice, and also negotiates contracts with mostly non-Jewish funeral homes for a pre-defined package--including a plain pine box--that financially protects its forty-six member congregations. One such contract between the committee and the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Rockville, Maryland requires the funeral director to provide "any Jewish congregation or its members" a complete funeral (excluding cemetery costs) for $1,615 through June 30, 2004. That's thousands of dollars less than is typical in the nation's capital.

In New York City, an alliance of the UJC-Federation, Jewish social service professionals, and a group of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist rabbis and lay leaders have taken Jewish burial into their own hands. Five years ago, NYC Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued a report which revealed that the Houston-based Service Corporation International (SCI), owner of the majority of the city's (and the nation's) funeral homes, was charging 30 to 40 percent more than comparable family-run homes. Accused of "monopolistic practices," SCI was ordered, among other things, to sell one of its Manhattan funeral homes, Plaza Memorial Funeral Chapel on the Upper West Side. Seizing the opportunity, the community alliance raised $2.7 million to purchase the funeral home and reconfigured it as a nonprofit run by a volunteer board of directors comprised of Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum. Today, the renamed Plaza Jewish Community Chapel charges significantly less for a basic funeral than its main SCI-owned competitor.

Plaza Jewish Community Chapel is one of just a handful of Jewish community-owned funeral homes nationwide, but the concept dates back a century. The nation's oldest nonprofit Jewish communal funeral home, Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco, was incorporated in 1902. Originally run by San Francisco's Orthodox Jews, Sinai Memorial today serves the entire Bay Area Jewish community, including the region's many unaffiliated Jews. Joyce Share, president of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, estimates that at least half of Sinai's current board members, herself included, are Reform Jews. Operating more like an Old World chevra kadisha, Sinai Memorial not only provides low-cost Jewish funerals, but buries the indigent for free--infants, too, out of compassion; maintains a community mikveh; and runs Passover seders for Russian-speaking immigrants. In addition, says executive director Gene Kaufman, Sinai donates all its proceeds--more than $125 million over the past ten years--to the Jewish community, primarily to support educational projects in area synagogues and schools.

As Reform congregations continue to increase their ritual observance and attract members from more traditional movements, the number of Reform chevrei kadisha will increase, predicts Cantor Colbert. He notes that before his Atlanta congregation created its chevra kadisha in 1999, one in four families requested a traditional Jewish burial; by 2003 almost everyone was doing so. In preparation for this demand, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles is now providing chevra kadisha training to all rabbinic students.

Supporters of bringing the chevra kadisha option into Reform congregations say it's not only about providing a meaningful cradle-to-grave "caring community"; it also has a deep spiritual dimension. "Any time I work with someone who's died, I confront my own mortality," says Paula Marcus. "Doing tahara keeps me in touch with the preciousness of life."

Sue Fishkoff, a newspaper editor and freelance journalist living in Pacific Grove, California, is the author of The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken Books).

Reform Resources

A Time to Prepare: This 90-page practical guide to end-of-life concerns assists individuals in writing ethical wills, choosing funeral homes, deciding on burial rituals, and more. Contact the UAHC Press at (888) 489-UAHC, e-mail, or visit the UAHC Press website.

What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme offers a spectrum of Jewish responses through the ages to the question of life after death. Contact the UAHC Press (as noted above).

A Candle for Grandpa: A Guide to the Jewish Funeral for Children and Parents by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer, illustrated by Joel Iskowitz, uses storytelling to explain to children the Jewish view of death, funeral practices, and rituals. Contact the UAHC Press (as noted above).

To Every Thing There Is A Season: Congregational Funeral and Cemetery Policies and Practices provides an in-depth overview of synagogue burial policies and practices. A complimentary copy can be downloaded from the Union's Department of Synagogue Management website.

The Union's Department of Jewish Family Concerns is available to help congregations develop bereavement support programs. For more information call (212) 650-4294 or

A "Guide for the Bereaved," offering a step-by-step explanation of what to do when a death occurs, is available online from Temple Beth Ami of Rockville, Maryland.

Reform responsa to questions concerning death, burial, and mourning can be accessed at the Central Conference of American Rabbis website.

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