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Chevra Kadisha: Seeking and Providing Comfort

07/01/2022 08:49:21 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Years ago, before I became a Rabbi, and while I was still more deeply influenced by my years of training in biology, my friend Cheryl’s father died. After meeting with the funeral director, she stopped by my home to seek the comfort of a friend. During that conversation, she said something I will never forget: “He’s all alone there. I don’t want him to be alone.”

Her feeling surprised me. I was aware that Jewish tradition does not allow the body to be left alone from the time of death until burial. This custom is called shmirah, which literally means “guarding.” But Cheryl, though Jewish, has never been religiously observant. She was unaware of the tradition of shmirah. She also was not aware of the traditional belief that the soul hovers until the body is safely in the ground and requires comfort. She was speaking from some unformed, primal instinct, one that I now know is common. Whatever our conceptions of the duality of soul and body, when our loved ones die many of us have a feeling that they are, in some mysterious way, still there. The body that housed them for all their time on Earth, that still looks like them though it is now stiff and cold, feels precious, holy, kadosh. We have an instinct to protect and honor it.

For many centuries, that instinct has been fulfilled by the Chevra Kadisha, which literally means the Holy Society. The Chevra Kadisha arranges for shmirah. In many communities, they also offer support for the mourners during shiva. Most profoundly, a sub-team of the Chevra Kadisha performs the rituals of taharah.

Taharah is both the most spiritual and the most corporeal of all Jewish rituals. In formulaic language, the team addresses the deceased. With their words, they offer dignity and comfort. With respect and tenderness, they wash the body and dress it in the plain white shrouds of burial.

Those moments in the taharah room are other worldly. They can feel transformative; one of our members, Stu Soffer, describes his experience: “Every time I perform a taharah, I am changed by it. Afterwards, I walk out onto the street, and I’m surprised that it looks the same. The world is the same, but I am not. I have learned so much about life from spending a few moments with the dead.”

I am new to the rituals of the Chevra Kadisha. Unlike my friend Cheryl, I did know that these practices are part of our tradition, but they were distant from me. For those in our community who desire it, shmirah and taharah are performed by anonymous associates of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco. I felt good knowing that our broader community is keeping the traditions alive, but it also seemed impersonal. The final acts of care for our loved ones are offered by strangers 40 miles away.

About four years ago, CBJ teamed up with Congregation Kol Emeth, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, and Sinai Memorial, to form a community-based, volunteer Chevra Kadisha. We called ourselves the Peninsula Masorti Chevra Kadisha, or PMCK. The group was excited and nervous, with a wide range of interests and attitudes. With each taharah we performed, we grew in confidence and closeness.

And then the pandemic shut us down.

At long last, our Chevra Kadisha is now reforming. Our first event was last month, a study session led by PMCK and Kol Emeth member Louis Newman. The thoughts and experiences shared by every participant in Louis’s session were profound. We will offer more study opportunities in the coming months, and soon we will begin to offer shmirah and taharah again.

We welcome new members. No knowledge or experience or confidence or commitment is required. All that is needed is a feeling of respect for the humanity of the dead, a desire to learn, and a willingness to confront the mysteries of death. Let me know if you would like to learn more.

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782