The Confluence of Time, Events, & Place ... Sacred Space

A Theology of Caring by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

[Ed. Note: As this blog entry is published, it is Erev Shavuot 5777. We will celebrate the holiday beginning tonight. The story around Shavuot is the arrival at the sacred space, that place where the divine will reveal itself to us. Like Shabbat, the holiday also creates a sacred space in time. This article touches on another way of seeing sacred space, and seems appropriate for this moment in our calendar cycle. For that reason I connected it with this holiday. We at Expired and Inspired, and all of the staff and principals at Kavod v’Nichum wish a Chag Shavuot Sameach to all who are celebrating, and many opportunities to enter into sacred space to all. — JB]

[Ed. Note: Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan has written for Expired and Inspired multiple times. She is a chaplain, and author of several books. Here, she offers us a few brief thoughts that deal with caring – something that is at the heart of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and those who perform Shmirah. — JB]

Whenever we undertake a caring act, it zips open a portal in God’s abode and God springs into our material world.  Every time this happens, God’s energizing presence spills over into our world and transforms it into a safer, more welcoming and more meaningful one.

A funeral chapel is a sacred space and in its official capacity it reminds mourners to recognize and enter a higher world and respond to its influence. But we do not need physical spaces such as a cemetery for our caring behaviors to invite God along for the ride. Each caring act itself, whether in a chapel or elsewhere, powers up an invisible, portable sanctuary between you and the recipients of your care. This might happen in a botanic garden, a hospital, an airport lounge, a diner. In that moment, God is taking a front-row seat in your spur-of-the-moment sanctuary.

Thus every caring act such as dressing the dead, guarding the body, attending the funeral and comforting the mourners is a cooperative venture between us and The Holy One of Compassion.  Each act constructs a sacred space, and in this sacred space, spiritual healing flourishes both for you and for those you serve.

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan



Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open.

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our Preliminary conference program.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.

Register for the conference now.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton, but rooms are limited; please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options – contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700,

Questions? Email or call 410-733-3700.


In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is:

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email    

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.




Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.


The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email, or phone at 410-733-3700.



Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, 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 or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (



If you would like to receive the periodic 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

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

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email 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 in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.


On Guard in the West Bank

Is this me? Eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening, I’m strolling down the ordinary street of my town, carrying an M-16 rifle. Tonight, it’s my turn again to do shmirah, guard duty, a chore required about once a month of every male resident here at Beit Yattir, the West Bank village where I live part time.

The slender M-16 is a meter long and weighs about 7 pounds. I like it. I appreciate the smooth simplicity of its design, and its oiled, metallic weight feels good in my hand. And beyond the physical satisfactions of a gun, I understand that I am in the presence of the Angel of Death. Fear and reverence abide with me as well.

I shove the curved ammunition clip up into its shaft, where it locks in with a satisfying thump and click. As a safety drill, I pull the bolt back twice to check visually that no bullet is in the chamber; then I move the selector switch from safety to semiautomatic and, aiming the rifle away from the houses, pull the trigger. Click. No bullet. The gun is at rest, all its power latent.

Part of what I like about shmirah is that it so clearly distinguishes my Israeli present from my American past. In my past, there are no firearms. My grandfather, who escaped from the Czar’s army, circa 1900, was the last male in the family to do military service. We’re urban American Jews, lovers of peace and the life of the mind; less nobly, we shrink from the notion of responsibility for our own protection.

I slip behind the wheel of the security Jeep, tucking the M-16 into the space between the front seats. With another man — and another rifle — for company, I’ll spend the next five hours slowly driving the roads of our village, concentrating on the dark, unpaved perimeter roads (most of them no wider than the vehicle), shining a searchlight over the black, rocky landscape as if expecting to pinpoint intruders coming to disturb our nighttime quiet.

In actuality, an intruder would have to be a half-wit to get caught by the Jeep’s searchlight. Anyone out there would see our lights coming from far away, lie still behind a rock, and wait for us to pass.

Shmirah is partially symbolic: We are letting our Arab neighbors know that we are on guard and that, as driveway signs sometimes put it in the United States, any intrusion will be met with an armed response.

My training for this duty was minimal. First, a fellow resident named Itamar, a skinny, cheerful guy about 30, taught me to handle the unloaded rifle — how to hold it, how to stand balanced for the best shooting, how to fire. We were in his living room, with two of his children, 3 and 5 years old, looking on with interest — mostly at me, since I was a stranger, whereas the weapon was a familiar object. It felt peculiar to stand aiming a rifle at the bookshelves in this pleasant fellow’s parlor.

A week later, some 15 of us went for practice to the outdoor shooting range in the nearby village of Maon. About half in the group were women who, though free of the obligation of shmirah, wanted gun training in case they ever needed to use one. We were coached through firing 15 rounds with an M-16 (five standing, five kneeling, five lying down) and then an equal number with an Uzi — the rifle stock kicking back into the shoulder, the explosive blasts sharp in the ear. Afterward, we strolled down across the no man’s land between us and the targets to see how well we had done. There the holes were, some of them pretty good shots, chest or stomach high, definitely sufficient to stop the human animal. I was ready.

My shmirah partner and I chat as we drive, getting to know each other, then gradually fall silent, thinking our own thoughts. A wild rabbit, panicked by our spotlight, leaps away over rocks. In the early part of the evening, residents out for a walk or returning by car from work wave a greeting to us. At 9:30, we open the main gate for the local bus to Beersheba. The evening drags on. Around 10:30, the boys playing on the basketball court finally switch off the lights and disperse to their homes. Two dogs bark continuously in the Arab village below us. For a while, we park up on the hillside to enjoy the elevated view: the roofs and yards of our village, the highway traveling through hillsides to Jerusalem, the lights of Jewish and Arab towns stretching to the horizon. Then we go on our rounds again.

Shortly before 1 a.m., we wake two of the young soldiers sleeping in a trailer at the north edge of the village. Three soldiers are assigned to Beit Yattir on two-week rotations, and one of their jobs is to take over late-night guard duty on foot, walking the perimeter fences and checking the gates until sunup.

They are slow to wake. We wait outside until they stumble from the trailer with their M-16s slung over their shoulders, zipping up their khaki army jackets against the cold. We hand over the two-way radio that will connect them to the regional security base near Hebron, then park the Jeep. At last, my shmirah partner and I are finished.

Back in my house, I extract the ammunition clip from the M-16, check the chamber again, lean the rifle against the bedroom wall, to be returned in the morning. Something about even these small formalities excites me, as if I am a little boy playing soldier, pretending danger and courage.

It is a foolish pretense, I remind myself. Although there has never been a terrorist intrusion at Beit Yattir, the neighboring village has not been so lucky; it is not completely out of the question that I will one day be forced to face my fellow man with my weapon and his between us.

But not tonight. Tonight, I can enjoy the ordinary peaceful quiet of our rural village. Nonetheless, before I go to sleep, I double-lock the door. This, I note, was always my final gesture of the day in America, too. There, no less than here, a brutish danger lurks outside somewhere, unpredictable. Double-locking the door behind me, I recognize myself again.

David Margolis writes from Israel. He can be reached at