TAHARAH IN A NUTSHELL
[Ed. Note: published a day ahead of schedule due to the Holiday of Yom Kippur. — JB]
Certain rituals gain importance when we recognize that they bolster, perpetuate and connect us to core Jewish values. Whether the Red Sea parted or not, my family observes Passover where, each year, the philosophical discussion grows more vigorous as the grandchildren grow older. I feel I have a responsibility to inform those who do not know to ask.
There is widespread uncertainty among Jews about what, if anything, lies beyond the world that we feel and smell and touch and see and KNOW. Most Jews understand that what we DO has consequences in this life that we know. When it comes to our actions and behavior, we don’t expect a greater reward nor do we fear certain punishment in a “life” post-death. Jewish values are focused on our actions and interactions with “the living,” we form low or high opinions based on how others speak, behave, care for and treat a co-worker or employee, a relative or a stranger, a colleague or a homeless person.
What “happens” at a Taharah is shrouded in mystery, misunderstanding and a plain lack of information. For the majority of non-Orthodox Jews Chevrah Kadisha and Taharah are terms that are unfamiliar, even unknown; a request for Taharah is NOT an “automatic” request. I, myself, used to say, “What does it matter? I’ll be dead.” Since my first experience on a Taharah Team, that unthinking, uninformed thought has never occurred to me again. Surely I’m not the only modern science-based person harboring the nagging possibility, the small belief in my own Tom Sawyer-like magic ability to be not only present but “aware” at my own funeral. I want to be washed and shrouded by women who have known me. Aware or not.
During a Taharah, a person is treated with deep respect and gentleness and sometimes they are better cared for in their death than in their life. When it comes to dying and death, I think a majority of non-Orthodox Jews today are like the “simple” child at the Seder who does not know to ask. Neither our everyday language nor our secular calendar reflect Jewish observance and, for Jews in America, that may be the root cause of disconnection from many Jewish traditions.
Translating the term Chevrah Kadisha to “Burial Society” provides a skeletal definition. The group consists of volunteer members. What happens during a Taharah is simply this: four or five members of the Chevrah Kadisha clean the deceased person respectfully, carefully dress them in a plain white shroud and place them in a simple casket. While performing these few tasks we say appropriate prayers and often read poems that are meaningful and relevant. It is not “ordinary work” but there is no mystery to it. Members who participate in a Taharah prefer to remain anonymous as they do not wish to be thanked individually. We know it is the team that delivers and it is a privilege to be on the roster.
I think that’s all one needs to know. My hope for the future is that you will ask
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 our Conservative synagogue 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.
[Ed. Note: Merle Gross has penned several other entries for Expired and Inspired. You can find them by searching through the archives. — JB]
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!
REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN:
Gamliel Institute Course 1, Chevrah Kadisha History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE) will be offered over twelve weeks on Tuesday evenings from December 5th, 2016 to February 21st, 2017, online.
Not quite sure if this is for you? Try a free ‘taste’ by coming to an introductory session on Monday, November 14th, 2016 from 8 to 9:30 pm EST. The instructors will talk about what the course includes, give a sense of how it runs, and talk about some of the topics that will be covered in depth in the full course.
For those who register, there will be an orientation session on Monday December 4th. It is intended for those unfamiliar with the online course platform used, all who have not taken a Gamliel Institute course recently, and those who have not used an online webinar/class presentation tool in past.
Class times will be all be 5-6:30 pm PST/6-7:30 pm MST/7-8:30 CST/8-9:30 pm EST. If you are in any other time zone, please determine the appropriate time, given local time and any Daylight Savings Time adjustments necessary.
Please note: the class meetings will be online, and will take place on Tuesdays (unless a Jewish holiday requires a change of date for a class session).
The focus of this course is on the development of the modern Chevrah Kadisha, the origins of current practices, and how the practices and organizations have changed to reflect the surrounding culture, conditions, and expectations. The course takes us through the various text sources to seek the original basis of the Chevrah Kadisha, to Prague in the 1600’s, through the importation of the Chevrah Kadisha to America, and all the way to recent days. It is impossible to really understand how we came to the current point without a sense of the history.
SIGN UP NOW TO TAKE THIS COURSE!
There is no prerequisite for this course; you are welcome to take it with no prior knowledge or experience, though interest in the topic is important. Please register, note it on your calendar, and plan to attend the online sessions.
Note that there are registration discounts available for three or more persons from the same organization, and for clergy and students. There are also some scholarship funds available on a ‘need’ basis. Contact us (information below) with any questions.
You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is there as well. For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website or on the
Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama, in the Spring (starting March 6th, 2017). Look for information to be forthcoming, or visit the “>Kavod v'Nichum Gamliel Institute Registration site.
Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.
You can donate online at You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click
If you would like to receive the Kavod v’Nichum newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at email@example.com.
You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!
To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find to be of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.
If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.email@example.com. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving as Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.