If you ask a non-Orthodox Jew “What is a Chevrah Kadisha?” you'll probably get a lot of approximately right answers. If you ask, “What is a Taharah?” I suspect you'll be met with an abundance of blank stares. In our very intelligent community, we are clearly lacking some basic Jewish literacy. It's likely that many of our own Chevrah members did not know the words ten years ago.
Today, more and more Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform congregations are embracing a tradition that fell into disuse because Jews in America adopted the funeral practices of the Christian community. We all know the details of birth but most everyone shrinks from the details of dying and death.
Few families know what the Chevrah Kadisha (CK) actually does; many think it's a bit of voodoo, and costly, too. We need to help our community members learn about the CK now so they will want to add this tradition for themselves, even demand it. To insure continuity we must attract and recruit younger participants, teach and expose them so that their future includes both the privilege of serving and the opportunity to be served.
In my experience, death is not as difficult as dying. My husband’s late mother, Ida Gross, often said “When it comes to dying, you gotta have mazel.” And, of course, that is a very serious remark and the truth in it is immediately apparent.
It was the last Sunday in April. A man I’d know for only five years, a Holocaust survivor, freedom fighter in Palestine, Talmudic scholar, savvy investor, he was a trusted and dear friend.
He had myriad ailments, what doctors refer to as “multiple morbidities.” I often accompanied him to doctor’s appointments before our lunch ”dates.” He was a favorite of every one of his physicians because he was a well-informed, compliant and uncomplaining patient who criticized only those things which could be improved and changed. His doctors listened.
After years of dialysis, a weakening heart, and undergoing countless surgeries and treatments intended to extend his life, he decided to go in to a hospice where could be in charge of his own case. “Genug,” he told his daughter and his doctors. From now on, he would do the prescribing.
During the weeks he was in hospice, I never thought of myself as visiting a “dying” friend. Death was nowhere to be seen or sensed. Knowing his end would be easier, my friend chose to stop eating. I loved to visit my opinionated, unlettered, wise, philosophical, and brilliant friend. We agreed, we disagreed, I always learned something new. Nothing changed except we no longer ate lunch, and we didn’t spend time waiting to see doctors. Sometimes we’d laugh so loudly I expected the staff would come to shush us, but they never did.
That Sunday afternoon, his loving daughter and son-in-law and admiring adult grandchildren were visiting, too. After a bit he said he was very thirsty and would like some ice cream. Diabetes was one of his “morbidities” so his daughter protested, saying, “Poppa, now you want to start eating again, and you’re asking for sugar?”
I slipped out of the room and went to the nursing desk where the ongoing argument could be heard. The staff knew me. I mentioned the request and returned to his bedside. The nurse came in a few steps behind me and before she could say even a word, my friend spoke, “Please, some ice cream.” “Any particular flavor?” “Vahtever you have is fine, thank you.” She was back in less than two minutes with three little servings in which he took as much delight in the having as in the eating. After a few spoonsful, he fell asleep. We all stayed silent. A while later, I waved and mouthed a goodbye to the family members, kissed my friend’s forehead ever so gently and whispered that I’d see him in the morning. I tiptoed almost all the way out of the room when he called out, “Miriam,” he always called me by my Hebrew name. I turned back, “Yes, I’m still here.” “Buy Home Depot,” he said. Those were his last words to me.
So, on the first Monday morning in May, fourteen years ago, when I came into his room I knew at once there’d be no more lively discussions, no more stock tips. His daughter was there but did not want to remain in the room, so I was heir to the blessing. It seemed like minutes between breaths. Suddenly, eyes open, he sat up, as if to get out of bed. The hospice nurse and I held him tight to us, our arms around him and each other, during the long drawn out final breaths. A man I’d know for only five years. A Holocaust survivor, freedom fighter in Palestine, Talmudic scholar, savvy investor, he’d been a trusted and dear friend.
I’ve been privileged to be present, in the room, at the time of death of several friends. Each time, I feel deeply honored. It is sad, indeed, to hold someone in those last minutes, but sadder still to think that my embrace did not matter.
While writing this, the word “midwife” came to mind; and, indeed, as I think back on it I had a sense of myself, in those moments, as being a midwife to death: soothing, urging, gentle, present. Nowadays, young couples turn to “doulas” to help them through the birthing process – we should definitely think about training death doulas – but the phrase sounds so terrifying. Surely different, less graphic words can be found to de-fuse, even dispel, the fears.
Merle Gross says about herself: I’ve told my children what I would like etched on whatever stone marks my future grave: “She was fun while she lasted” (boldface intended). I know how serious a business Life is, and I don’t want to project an image of me as having been a party-girl, not at all. Simply put, a burial site, for me, is not where my memories of late loved ones reside. I hope that visiting my burial spot won’t feel important to my children—maintaining it? Yes, but visiting it? No. I hope their memories of me will attach to the places we’ve “experienced” together. So, maybe I’m reaching out from the grave to send a sly message but a valid one aimed at some passerby of the future. Perhaps someone coming to or leaving a funeral will read those words and understand that the late Me felt she had a gravely important message to convey which is, connect in “real” time with loved ones and strangers, too. At a funeral, doesn’t every attendee hope that any sour, unpleasant memories will fade soon and be replaced with the treasured ones which, more likely, explain why we’re there?
In 2008, when Anshe Emet, our Conservative synagogue in Chicago decided to establish a Chevrah Kadisha, my husband and I volunteered as “charter members”. Barry retired from law practice in 2010, I'd retired from business in 1994, when I sold my women’s clothing manufacturing company. From 1995 until today, I've recorded seventy oral history “interviews” as a trained volunteer in the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Project, and I’ve had several enriching stints as guide and/or discussion facilitator for Facing History and Ourselves, and Chicago Historical Society exhibits. Currently, my husband and I, respectively, co-ordinate the Men’s and Women's Chevrei Kadisha.
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Kavod v'Nichum Conference!
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Starting in January: Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual Practice. Tuesdays, (Orientation session on January 5th, classes start the 6th) – March 24th 2015
Starting in January: Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. Wednesdays, January 7th (Orientation session on January 5th, classes start on the 7th) – March 25th 2015
Beginning in March: Chevrah Kadisha: International Perspectives. Open to Gamliel Students who have (or are on track to) successfully completed the five prior courses. This course included the Travel/Study Mission to New York, Prague, and Israel that will take place in April-May. Registration is limited.
Be on the lookout for information on A Taste of Gamliel – a five session series on the subject of concepts of the soul, with guest teachers including Rabbis Burt Visotsky, Elie Spitz, and Goldie Milgram, spanning January to June.
You can register for courses online at firstname.lastname@example.org
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