February 25, 2020

A Tiny Heart

My phone rings at all hours of the day and night. As the face of our community’s Chevrah Kadisha, I am on call to arrange the pickup of deceased, provide information and reassurance to families, solve problems, and sometimes to serve as a bridge between a family and the cemetery. Beyond my voice on the phone, the hands-on role of our Chevrah in shmirah and taharah is often invisible to the family and to the community.

We are never more invisible than when someone loses a baby or delivers a stillborn. As there is no Taharah, I don’t call any of the Chevrah. In part I feel the need to shield my Chevrah members from the sadness, and in part I feel an obligation to protect the parents’ privacy as much as possible. The parents do not have to go anywhere to complete paperwork or purchase a plot. Often I am the only contact the family has. I do what needs to be done and drive the baby to the cemetery to meet the crew. There is no service for a baby less than 30 days old. 

Many families are not affiliated, and don’t have a family Rabbi. In my experience, the family rarely attends the burial of a baby. We have often buried a baby in the grave of a grandparent or great grandparent. 

This call comes from another city. “My sister lost a baby and we don’t know what to do”. The parents are newcomers to our community. They have no family here. Where will we bury the baby? Many calls back and forth. What is the baby’s name? Will they have to purchase a full funeral package? The cemetery finds a spot in the old Children’s Section, mostly used in the 1920’s. There will be no charge to the family. We plan a time for me to meet the crew.

The baby is a boy. At about 21 weeks gestation he is fully formed, incredibly tiny. There is no Taharah, ritual preparation, but the baby requires circumcision. I call one of my childhood friends, now a pediatrician and a mohel. He comes to our Taharah room , and as we open the small white box, we see a tiny heart charm on a blue ribbon tied carefully around the layers of wrapping. We unwrap the baby, and I witness the bris and the naming. We talk about how long we have known one another and the range of experiences we have shared. I carefully wrap the baby back up. After, we wash our hands and hug, hard, at the front door. I go back to my desk, feeling both sad and blessed. How did I merit to witness something so sacred?

The next day, we bring an infant casket up from the basement. I use our softest flannel sheets to make a nest in the bottom, place the tiny bundle in , wrap another sheet on top.I mark the head end and put the lid on.

The father wants to come to the cemetery, but doesn’t have a car. I pick him up at work. Sitting in my car outside his office, I have no idea who I’m meeting or how this is going to go. He is friendly, chatty, all Israeli practicality and bluntness. He’s impressed with my Hebrew. We play Jewish Geography as I try to make some connections. Who do they know here? Do they have friends?

We drive to our building to pick up the baby. Without hesitation he follows me in the back door. The casket is on the counter. He takes off the lid. “Do we need the box?” “ Yes”,  I tell him, “we need the box”.

We get in the car, the casket on his lap. He’s chatting as I drive, asking questions about the neighborhoods we pass through on the way to the cemetery. I try to stay present in the moment, alarmed at how easily we can be distracted. He has no idea of where he is. We get to the cemetery, sparkling snow and stones as far as the eye can see. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and it’s cold. The crew come out, introduce themselves to the father. We follow them to the grave, right near the front of the cemetery. The father puts the casket down on the snow and takes off the lid. “I have to see,” he says. The crew turn away, terrified of what they might see.  The father bends down and opens the nest, unwraps the baby, takes a last look. I help him wrap the baby again and put the lid on. He jumps down into the grave, places the casket on the ground, jumps back out, and he and I begin to shovel. The earth is frozen chunks; he has no mitts on. When the casket is covered, we go back to my car and watch the crew bring the backhoe to fill the grave. We wash our hands with a bottle of water I brought with me. As we drive away, I tell him he how unusual and brave he is. Silence. I see a few tears rolling down his cheek. Soon he is chatting again, questioning the route I’m driving to take to him home.

I deliver him home, they live around the corner from me. We get out of the car and I hand him a package with a seven day candle, a couple of books on Jewish thought and practice, and, in a small envelope, a tiny heart charm which the hospital staff had tied with ribbon around the baby.  I hug him on the street, hard, he invites me in for coffee. “Another day”, I tell him. “B’smachot, we should meet in happy times”.


Rena Boroditsky is the Executive Director of the Chesed Shel Emes, the non-profit Jewish funeral chapel and Chevrah Kadisha in Winnipeg, Canada. For fifteen years, she has been a student and teacher of end-of-life Jewish rituals. Rena has led sessions at Kavod v'Nichum conferences and at Limmud events in the US & Canada. She recently launched Death Cafe Wnnipeg. She has served in past as a board member of Kavod v'Nichum, and was appointed to another term as an officer at the most recent Kavod v’Nichum conference. She has been a lecturer and student in the Gamliel Institute. Rena is a member of the first graduating class of the Gamliel Institute, having completed the required studies and projects, and she has returned recently from the inaugural Israel Study Mission which is the heart of the sixth course in the Gamliel Institute curriculum, International Perspectives.






Taste of Gamliel registration is open. Join us for a 5 part webinar series with the theme The World To Come – Do You Have Your Ticket? The series will include one session each month from January to June, each on Sundays. 


NOT TOO LATE – You Can View ALL the sessions held on recordings! Register, watch the rest of the sessions live, and see the earlier sessions on recordings! This also works if you are busy for one of the sessions scheduled! For those registered, the sessions will be recorded and may be accessed afterwards (instructions will be provided following each session) so those who cannot watch live can still view the presentations.


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Be on the lookout for information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA June 5-7 2016. Register Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to plan to remain for an additional day following the conference for a live educational program. Information will be forthcoming about this event – look for it, and mark your calendar now!    





Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

Spring 2016:  

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). There will be an online orientation session Monday May 2nd at 8-9:30 pm EST. 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! 


For more information, 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 wish to 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.


You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.


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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