Chevra Kadisha conference highlights Jewish way of honoring the dead

“This is a universal thing that everybody goes through,” Rabbi Stan Levy emphasized during the 10th North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, a three-day event last month at American Jewish University. Appearing as a guest speaker at the annual conference, Levy was describing one of life’s few certainties — death.

The conference highlighted Jewish funeral tradition — with the take-home message that not just rabbis and staff at cemeteries and mortuaries have a role to play in planning and carrying out these rituals, but that the deceased’s family, friends and community members should have an active role, too.

This is the mission of the Chevra Kadisha movement, a community of volunteers that works with the bereaved on end-of-life issues.

Kavod v’Nichum, an educational organization that provides information and assistance with traditional Jewish practices, organized the conference. The Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion co-sponsored.

This was the group’s first conference in Los Angeles, and it featured more than 50 lectures, workshops and discussions, and drew more than 150 attendees from across the country and abroad, including Chevra Kadisha leaders and participants, rabbis and cantors, chaplains, educators and others.

Among the weekend’s bigger draws was Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University’s rector and its Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy, who lectured on “Ethical, Environmental and Financial Issues in the Burial vs. Cremation Discussion.”

A vocal supporter of burial because it is the traditional way of handling the deceased, Dorff admitted that there is not a “slam-dunk argument” to be made against cremation, particularly because it costs much less than burial.

Throughout the three days of learning, sessions at the conference included David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, lecturing on “State of the Chevra Kadisha Movement”; “Muslim Practices Around Death and Burial,” featuring Kenan Kapetanovic, funeral director and technology coordinator at the Islamic Center of Southern California; workshops on tahara, the Chevra Kadisha task of washing the deceased’s body prior to the funeral; Rob Eshman, The Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief, discussing “How Do We Get Media for the Chevra Kadisha; Rabbi Anne Brener’s discussion of “Grief as a Spiritual Path”; and a field trip to Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in Simi Valley.