Expired And Inspired

Building a New Road Out of Stumbling Blocks: A Difficult Taharah “Back Story” By Merle Karasch Gross


[Ed. Note: WARNING – This is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish.

This entry in our blog details some of the aspects of what may occur in what we refer to as a “Difficult Taharah”. Told from the perspective of one event at one Chevrah Kadisha, this speaks to the guiding principle of those who are members of the Chevrah Kadisha that ‘we do the best we can’ in the circumstances. Not infrequently, death is not pristine, and we are faced with unexpected or unusual situations. These events can be disturbing; they are certainly not something to be discussed lightly. I decided to publish this entry which addresses both the difficult Taharah, and the equally difficult decision to speak about it.  — JB]

Background on Taharah

Taharah procedure is best conveyed by a CK participant relating their personal experience; anything else is a mere “clinical” explanation of the ritual steps and is little more than a dull iteration of tasks. The sacred aspect isn’t fully conveyed in any of the “manuals” that I’ve read. The word “spiritual” is overused and I choose to shun it. Always tending to our work carefully, it may look as if we’re helping someone get dressed for a special event which, indeed, we are. We wash and comb and pat dry and swath our meitah in fresh new garments. No lipstick and powder, no lace and perfume. Each time we follow the ritual tasks with ease and recite prayers and relevant poems yet we never think of it as being “routine”.

The Situation

Last November, our Chevrah Kadisha completed an extremely challenging and complex taharah. The funeral director had given me the name of the elderly meitah and that of her daughter but no other details. I was told that death occurred in the hospital after a long illness. “Nothing unusual,” he said. Other than the name of the meitah, there was nothing “usual” about that taharah – our ceremony was imbued with kavod hameit; every act was custom-made.

That night, I wrote the team saying that I was not thanking them for being there though, of course, it was very much like a thank you. It came to mind, but I didn’t use the “spiritual” word. I wanted to say that everybody had been brilliant but that sounded self-flattering. I finally wrote:

“S___ and I encountered a similarly complex meitah two years ago. We were a team of only two and worked for hours to do our best to serve her well. During that long night, we learned a lot of what NOT to do. Today’s taharah proved that knowing the ‘not to do’ is as important as knowing the ‘what to do.’

 

Today we brought four pairs of hands, four open minds and hearts, willing and determined; we took one step at a time. Your individual support and combined suggestions contributed all that was needed to complete our holy task. Together, we forged a unique and deeply affecting ceremony. We made necessary and appropriate adaptations, and devised creative substitutions that enabled us to complete a taharah full of grace.”

Stop There?

It was meaningful and rewarding to have persisted and succeeded, and I wondered whether our solutions should be shared with others? Would they be helpful or insulting? I thought about describing the details in a useful article for Expired and Inspired but then I thought our “solutions” might offend or be labeled as “Wrong. Wrong, Wrong.”  I considered a “skeletal” essay but knew it would lack merit if it lacked detail. I decided to simply trust that future teams will manage to complete the ritual in ways they determine to be most fitting.

Over time, the value of the earlier challenging experience became increasingly clear and led me to recognize the importance of writing about the more recent one. I felt a certain responsibility to set it all down, to describe the actions we devised and the ways we chose to resolve each roadblock. You may see reasons to share this essay or more reasons to remain “mum.” Here is what I have written.

Navigating Uncharted Waters

The tradition of developing minhagim is our inheritance from the hundred generations of women who preceded us in this task. Their legacy affords great latitude to each Chevrah Kadisha in decision-making with regard to both the spoken and procedural content of Tahara. Over the past nine years, our Chevrah has developed its own particular set of customs, our “minhag,” In the course of a single unusual taharah last November, by virtue of our commitment and out of necessity, we added to it.

We were a team of four that day. As founding members of our Chevrah Kadisha, S___and I had worked together uncountable times; it was the sixth taharah for our third member and our final volunteer had participated only once before. Years ago, we discontinued other than “on-the-job” training… experience continues to confirm the truth in the adage to, “Participate in one and lead the next.”

We entered the Taharah room and prepared it as we always do. Donning gowns, filling buckets, setting out the tachrichim. Ready to begin our “hands-on” work, we positioned ourselves around the table and drew back the sheet to discover that the meitah was sealed in a large zippered plastic bag. There’d been no mention of any unusual condition or special need but what now lay before us was unknown and not covered in any of the manuals.

What we found

The bag was opaque and, through it, we could see some areas that were dark in color. Concerned and wanting to limit contamination, I said I would unzip the bag and asked the others to not touch it at all. Leakage of some sort had caused the dark streaks in several places on the sheet which covered the meitah.  We moved the sheet to the very bottom of the bag. She was resting on a sodden blanket, swathed in additional sheets. A pinkish-stained moist cloth covered her face. I suggested that the others might want to turn away. Everyone stood fast and alert as I lifted the cloth. Her mouth was filled with bloody liquid and there had been leakage from her nose as well. Neither her face nor head showed any sign of injury though she’d clearly suffered some sort of hemorrhage.

I’d been told that she died less than 24 hours earlier, after a long illness which was unnamed, unknown. Now her belly was bloated and her lower abdomen was green-tinged, her skin appeared stretched, almost transparent; many pain patches and various lines remained attached. A red tag wired to her big toe warned that “precautions should be taken when handling.” From a prior experience, S____ and I knew that moving her, even slightly, would cause further release of those body fluids.

What to do?

Could we wash and “purify” our fragile meitah without causing further indignity or harm? We knew that she must remain encased. We cut away the blood-soiled sheets and placed them at the bottom of the bag. We removed the lines and patches that could be easily removed. Her toe nail polish was unremovable.

To clean her body, we took the softest cloths we could find and tore them into  many small pieces. We dipped the cloths in the buckets filled for the taharah. Beginning at her right shoulder; we wet our cloths so we could wring out just enough water to clear away the blood and we patted her dry as we went.

The traditional pouring of nine kavim was out of the question. When the meitah was clean and fully uncovered for the taharah, cupping our hands, we scooped water from each bucket and did our best to provide an unbroken trickle; down the right, then the left and last, down the middle. “Tahorah hee, tahorah hee, tahorah hee,we chanted throughout. We dried her gently and covered her with clean white towels to make sure the shrouds would not become soiled, and laid the tachrichim upon her, tying the customary ties. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled.”  We covered her face with a small towel and finally placed the veil and bonnet on her.

I went to the aron, sprinkled Jerusalem soil on the sovev and set the gartel crosswise, its ends draping over the sides. We moved her slowly, gently and carefully into the aron. We opened the bag to place the shards and sprinkle the remainder of the soil on her heart and reproductive organs. Without anything being said, we each moved the zipper part of the way until it was fully closed.

The long belt encircled the plastic bag at the place we believed to be her waist. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled,” the prescribed knots were made and arranged. We closed the aron, tidied the room, offered our final words and departed. Everything felt right and we separated feeling grateful to have preserved her dignity and, due to our most unusual actions, we each knew with certainty that we had served her well.

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.

Merle Kharash Gross

Merle Kharasch Gross

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

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 April 23rd session is being taught by Rabbi Richard Address, well known author, teacher, and host of the Sacred Aging Podcast. www.jewishsacredaging.com. The title of his presentation is: Making Jewish Decisions As Life Ebbs.

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: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

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.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Plan to join us June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017
Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. 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, info@jewish-funerals.org
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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD:

UPCOMING COURSE

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

CLASSES

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (Thursdays 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.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations 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 http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support 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 (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

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 info@jewish-funerals.org.

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 j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

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

 

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

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.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find 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.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. 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, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

 

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Taharah & Telltale Tatoos by Kerry Swartz


 

[Ed. Note: I am reprising an earlier article which received a great deal of attention when it first appeared a few years ago. — JB]

The Tatoo Myth

One of the most prevalent myths about Jewish death pertains to tattoos: should you have them, you can’t have a Jewish funeral or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is simply not true. Indeed, this is the single most frequent tweet I make as a response for Kavod v’Nichum. Ironically, I’m Modern Orthodox, covered in tattoos, and a member of a Frum (observant) Chevrah Kadisha Taharah (ritual purification) team.

Learning About Tatoos

Inspired by the popular movie, Eastern Promises, I set about studying Soviet criminal tattoos some years back, and became familiar with some of their basic themes; they are really code for others who can translate them to understand what/who someone is, their crimes, their joys, etc. It’s really an ongoing roadmap about their life. That all proved useful, as one of the most memorable Taharot (plural of Taharah)I participated in involved an older Russian man who was covered in tattoos.

Taharah

Taharot for our team can feel routine, as we do several a week. Since this man died from natural causes, nothing that might surprise us was expected. As the man lay on the Taharah table, one could plainly see he was covered in tattoos, which I immediately recognized as Russian from my earlier study. The other team members stared for a moment in surprise, but quickly moved back to the routine of Taharah.

Meanwhile, whatever role(s) I normally play were set aside as I had my first chance ever to examine actual Russian tattoos. Our Taharah Rosh/leader was a bit impatient, so I tried my best to make mental notes while working, although at slower than normal pace, trying to take in as much information as possible.

Tale of the Tatoos

After the Taharah was completed, I was able to tell our team that this man had been an officer in the Soviet Army; he had liberated one of the camps, and no doubt saved the lives of many Jews. Later in life he had turned to some forms of petty crime and spent over five years in prison. He loved his two children, who had also followed in his criminal footsteps. He had killed several men, but I was unable to ascertain if this was from wartime or afterwards.

Honoring the Deceased

In sum, although he was covered with tattoos and had a criminal background, this man was given a full Taharah, Jewish funeral, and Jewish burial, which the team attended. The entire service was in Russian, so I felt especially fortunate to be able to tell his story to my team members. To them, he was just another deceased man. To me he became a fascinating link to the stories tattoos can tell and the knowledge I had garnered from them about this man’s life.

Kerry Swartz is a member of the Community Chevrah Kadisha in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He is a professionally trained photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a graduate of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as the president of the Board of Kavod v’Nichum, as well as serving as a staff member and instructor of the Gamliel Institute, and as a mentor for Gamliel Institute students. Kerry is happily married with two teenagers who think his library is gross.

 

Kerry Swartz in casket he built

Kerry Swartz – in casket he built

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD:

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester.

COURSE PREVIEW

If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the Free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for the Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EST. The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to info@Jewish-Funerals.org.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

______________

TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. 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. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

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 Sarah Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

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: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

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.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

 

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference.

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017
Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. 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  info@jewish-funerals.org
____________________

DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations 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 http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support 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 (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

 

___________

MORE INFORMATION

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 info@jewish-funerals.org.

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 j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

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

 

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

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.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find 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.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. 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, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

 

_____________________

 

Expired And Inspired

Kavod v’Nichum’s Expired And Inspired: Who may Prepare Whom for Burial?


You may recall that some weeks back I described a new feature of the Expired and Inspired blog; the option to submit a question that would be researched and written up. This is the first response to such a question.

The Question Asked

The question for this blog came up in several ways. It has been a part of the ongoing discussion concerning who should/could be included in a Chevrah Kadisha team, and how a Chevrah Kadisha team might/should deal with encountering a transgender meit/ah. The answer to that issue is not yet fully clear, nor is there universal agreement.

It is fairly widely understood that the traditional practice has been that men could only prepare men for burial, while women could prepare either women or men (in an ‘emergency’). This practice has been used to choose to have teams of women as the Chevrah Kadisha in some instances, for example in times of war, when no men were available, or, more recently, for the preparation of some transgender persons.

The question that is being considered here is not about the transgender concern (I mention that only because that was the context in which the question came up), but simply, how did it come to be that women could serve on/as the Chevrah Kadisha team for men?

Credit where credit is due

I turned to our volunteer researcher, Isaac Pollak, a student of the Gamliel Institute, and a long time, very experienced member of several Chevrah Kadisha teams, who has also studied and participated on Chevrah Kadisha teams worldwide. Thanks and appreciation to him for his efforts on this question.

Please note: I am summarizing Isaac’s work; I have done my best, but it is quite possible that I have misunderstood or misstated something, so if there are any errors, I have introduced them – don’t blame Isaac, it is my fault. — JB

Answer

It turns out that there isn’t a great deal of information that supports the custom that women may perform a Taharah for men.

The earliest basic text found to start with is Chapter 12:10 of Evel Rabbati (first part of minor tractate Semachot), which reads:

“A man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman. A woman may shroud and gird the corpse of a man or of a woman.

A man may attend another man suffering from intestinal illness, but not a woman. A woman may attend a man or a woman suffering from intestinal illness.”

Other later textual sources such as the Tur (Jacob ben Asher, Arba’ah Turei), the Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Caro, Code of Jewish Law), Nachalat Yaakov (Yaakov ben Binyamin Aharon, on Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah), and the Taz (David Halevi Segal, Turei Zahav) build on this position, and all state that the reason that a man cannot shroud women is because a man has a tendency to have immediate prurient thoughts  upon the sight of a woman’s body, whereas a woman does not.

More, the subsequent responsa literature seems to all repeat the same thing, with no additional information.

Conclusion

The finding is that the early source, Evel Rabbati 12:10, continues to be the basis upon which this allowance of women to prepare men stands, and the only additions after this text are apparently assertions of the (we might think questionable) reason for the allowance.

We can speculate that this was at one time arrived at as a practical answer: I can imagine that in a time of war, when most men were away for extended periods for work or travel, when there were restrictions on the gathering of men in groups, or for other reasons; there may have been times when only women would have been available to perform the essential mitzvot around Taharah, whether the deceased was male or female.

That might have given rise to pressure to find a way for women to be permitted to do this task for men instead of men doing it. Women would have been engaged, even though this could be seen as fulfilling a time-bound mitzvah (one to be completed as soon as possible, and preferably within a day to permit speedy burial); a category of mitzvot for which women are generally not obligated, and some say prohibited, in halachic thought.

This is a fascinating question. We don’t have a complete answer, but the underlying ‘why’ is most intriguing.

If you know any more about this question, please feel free to be in touch or submit an article for the blog.

Do You Have a Question?

And if you have a question you would like us to look into, please send it to me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Rabbi Joe Blair serves two small congregations in the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Bridgewater College, and serves as webmaster and coordinator for Jewish Values Online. He studied at, and was one of the first group of graduates from the Gamliel Institute. He serves as a staff and board member of Kavod v’Nichum, and as a faculty member and Dean of Administration for the Gamliel Institute. He is the editor of the Kavod v’Nichum’s blog, Expired and Inspired, which appears on the L.A. Jewish Journal blogs website. He is involved in several Chevrot Kadisha.

Rabbi Joe Blair

Rabbi Joe Blair

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. 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. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses. The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with a few Israelis and British students on occasion.

Upcoming Taste of Gamliel Webinars are on February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, ask participants to raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and call on and unmute participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly tool.

Webinar sessions are free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions are 90 minutes. Sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

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

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017

You will receive an automated acknowledgement of registration. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information.

You can view a recording of the sessions after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, there will be time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

The entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation of $36 or more to help us defray the costs of providing this series. That works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and world class teachers that present it.

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.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD:

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings in the Spring on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays – the day of the week will change in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

COURSE PREVIEW

If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EDST. The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to info@Jewish-Funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference.

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. 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  info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations 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 http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support 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 (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

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 info@jewish-funerals.org.

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 j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

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

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

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.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. 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, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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