THAT Taharah: Dying to Serve & Serving to Live
[Editor’s note: Most of the entries in this blog focus primarily on the deceased, or on the mourners, because that is the nature of the mitzvah. Here we are given a view of how the work of the Chevrah Kadisha impacts those who engage in this particular aspect of our human dance with death – how life changing, and life-affirming it can be.
NOTE: This article is factual and correct. The name of the author and a few of the details have been changed to protect the privacy of the author. The contents may be disturbing or difficult for some readers. — JB]
The hell that is depression has haunted me for over twenty years; severe clinical depression and anxiety was the original diagnosis. It took nearly ten years of therapy and countless medication combinations to get me to the point where I became a functioning individual. Even today, doctors still tinker with different dosages to try and boost my mood; I have good days, even weeks, but eventually clouds of darkness return. What’s different is that I have the skills to recognize when they’re present and dig myself out of the hole before being swallowed up.
Everyone’s experience with depression is different, but in my case, as I’m sure for many other sufferers, there were periods of despair so deep that living seemed to be too much. Suicide, unfortunately, is the ‘answer’ for many. I never attempted it, but I certainly ideated about what life for others would be like without me. And that’s the insipid nature of this disease; it doesn’t just plunge one into periods of extended despair, it maligns how one sees the world through non-reality based thinking.
So as someone who ritually prepares the dead for burial — and on a fairly regular basis — I have derived some therapeutic benefit from being part of a community Chevrah Kadisha. I know what death looks, feels, and smells like, and while others might come away with a renewed sense of spiritual fulfillment, it’s different for me. Death, or what I felt it might be like in my life, took on a real sense of perplexity. People who died of old age didn’t really impact my sensibilities since they had lead (or one might imagine so) a full life, and their time had come. But a Taharah for someone my own age always invokes the feeling of “There but for the grace of G-d”. Tragic, yes, whatever the circumstances, when someone dies ‘before their time’. But for someone who still sometimes had views that the world might be better off without me, such encounters serve as reality checks.
Situations in life often serve as beneficial incidents towards improvement and recovery from depression or depressive episodes. My condition has never stopped me from working or performing with our Chevrah Kadisha, but one Taharah in particular served to finally rid me of suicidal ideation.
I received the text message to come one stormy evening, the freeway rain-swept and covered with blown palm fronds. There were two Taharot that evening, one for an older individual, and another for a young one. The first Taharah was, like so many others, respectful, incident free, and almost mechanical in its precise execution. The second was for a young individual who had committed suicide by jumping from a structure to the parking lot below.
None of us had any warning this was the case. Unzipping the body bag revealed the devastating effects of the jump; the crushed, mangled corpse of someone driven by despair, by thoughts or circumstances that I, too, have probably experienced. But to see the devastating effects of suicide laid so bare confronted me with demons I fought so hard to fight back. “This could have been me”.
The details of this person’s condition are too graphic to detail, but the shock of seeing them was life changing. When I have my infrequent boughts of dark visions and I’m able to climb out of them, I no longer envision a world without me. Suicide is inherently selfish, and thinking about what I would have done to others always kept my ideations in check. But seeing what others would see has ‘cured’ me of these thoughts.
We who do this work are often affected by it. Some are drawn closer to something; be it G-d, religion, some inner form of spiritual renewal, or life in general. In my case, on that night, it was life . . . not life in general, but my own life, and its value to others.
Author’s Name & Bio Withheld by request [Ed.]
TASTE OF GAMLIEL
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KAVOD V’NICHUM CONFERENCE:
Be on the lookout for information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA Sunday to Tuesday, June 5-7, 2016. Register Check online for information on almost anything you might want to know. Click here to ” target=”_blank”>more about the conference and our plenary ” target=”_blank”>options. Look at the direct Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to attend the conference and plan to remain for an additional day (through mid-day Wednesday) following the conference for a live educational program. During the conference, we will be celebrating the first group of graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and looking forward to the next cohort. Immediately following the close of the conference, we continue with learning specifically geared to Gamliel Students. We have as our instructors for this fabulous closed session Reuven Kimmelman on Kaddish, Eddie Feld on Psalm 49, and Ruth Langer on Tziduk Hadin. This will be an in-depth, informative, and inspirational program! Mark your calendar, make your plans, and register to attend now! The class is free to Gamliel students, but donations to help us offset the cost are very welcome.
GAMLIEL STUDENT PROJECTS
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!
During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. This course will run from May 3rd to July 19th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST/9-10:30 pm AST. (12 class sessions). If there is sufficient interest, we may be able to run a second session duuring the day in the US (evening in Israel), as we did for Course 2 in Winter 2016.
There will be an online orientation session Monday May 2nd at 8-9:30 pm EST (and possibly another time, if the course is offered at more than one time).
Past Students, please note: We are using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending the orientation sessions if you have not beein a Gamliel student since January 2016 and intend to take this course!
For more information about the course, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.
Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who will undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at Fall 2016:
Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. This course has no prerequisites. Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend. You can register online, and a full description of the course is there as well.
NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can request a 20% discount. There are also clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding to take Gamliel Institute courses. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.
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