February 19, 2020

Eight Hearts for the Chevrah – Letters After a Taharah

I “co-ordinate” the Women’s Chevrah Kadisha. (That means I schedule Taharot: send out e-notification of need, poll members as to availability, make certain the Taharah room is available during the time we can assemble a team of at least four. We do not have a designated “Rosh” – experience demonstrates that even first-timers may “lead” in problem-solving. I think of it as “the Rosh-within”.) 

September 20, 2015: Late in the day, I e-mailed a note of gratitude to those who participated in that morning’s taharah. We knew the meitah’s family would accompany her to Budapest where she would be buried beside her late husband.

We never discuss an individual taharah “outside the room” but, this was an unusual circumstance and I felt it was proper to share my note with the daughter-in-law of the meitah. She is a friend who has worked at our synagogue for years; she knows all the members and her husband is a frequent volunteer in our Men’s CK. They had requested our Chevrah, still, I sensed they needed some bit of reassurance about the taharah and I hope others will agree that it was appropriate to share the note and provide some “details”. I mentioned no name but mine and that of the meitah’s friend.

“Sixteen hands, not linked, but each pair working in unison at different tasks to accomplish the shared purpose … washing, drying, tying, tucking, touching, stroking.

The sixteen legs and arms of eight independent women, supporting, carrying, lifting, delivering, moving each one to a place of importance.

Eight distinct voices, not necessarily “on key” yet harmonizing, eight brains working at the same puzzle until the pieces were in place. 

Today’s taharah was a particularly rare gathering in that we had eight team participants. When I received a call asking if a close friend of the meitah could participate, I agreed. Over the years, our 25 members have worked in varying combinations and are comfortable having a newcomer.

When we met Channah  [Ed. Note: the name has been changed for privacy in this posting]  this morning, she told us that she’d never taken part in the ritual preparations after death and she was uncertain as to how she would “be.” Still, she wanted to stay. Channah did not say so, but it would have been fair for her to feel particularly uncertain about how her dear friend would be treated by a group of women who had neither deep individual connections nor shared experiences with her. Though Channah and the meitah were born in different countries in Eastern Europe, they could speak the language of each other’s native land. Channah had lived in the United States for many years and moved to Chicago only four years ago. That was about the same time that the meitah’s son persuaded her to leave Budapest and settle in Chicago. When the two women met, they bonded at once. Each understood the history of the other. Channah visited often over the years; their conversation was rich and wide-ranging because the meitah was not confined to using her newly acquired English. The team felt an immediate sense of connection with Channah.

We follow the Taharah manual, of course, and we’ve developed and incorporated our own customs, minghagim. Early in the taharah, Channah cradled the head of her friend and softly sang a Hungarian lullaby which we fully understood without translation. Knowing the music would be familiar to the meitah, we played a recording of  Liszt’s “Liebestraum” during the ritual purification. It was a “first” for our CK, but an appropriate addition, a bonus.  

When all was in place and we were leaving the taharah room, Channah walked to her friend’s side with a book which held many small bookmarks and she opened to one of them. I stood across from her while she read. I did not understand the words of the Hungarian poem but was moved by them nonetheless, perhaps all the more. It was a tribute, a salute to her late friend, I sensed that it was a poem of giving and forgiving. (During the last months of illness, the meitah had wondered aloud to her friend about how long it was taking for death to come and seemed to feel regret for having such a desire.)

Those who serve in a taharah are the last to see, touch, hold, wash, dress, speak to, and relate to a former living being. I’m humbled anew each time; I feel more acutely alive and aware; I am grateful and privileged to be part of this unique Sisterhood of extraordinary women. Not even one of us seeks acknowledgment or reward or so much as a “thank you” for what we do, but still I say “Thank You” for joining this community, for volunteering time and again, for standing beside, across and always, figuratively, behind. You are problem avoiders, solvers and fixers, the creative “doers and thinkers” that get the pieces into place just so.

I DO love each of you for your unique self and I love you again for the added traits and skills you exhibit and impart to the group.      Merle

The following note came from the daughter-in-law of the meitah:

“Merle, we do not need to know the names of the other women who participated in meitah’s taharah. It’s enough to know that you and Channah were there. 

I brought back 8 pieces of lacework that were in meitah’s condo in Budapest. I would like you to give each of the 8 participants (you included) one of the pieces, so that they each will have something that was valued by the woman they helped send on her final journey. We feel strongly that the participants should have these.

And … in case the members of the chevrah didn’t realize it, it was a great comfort to X (son of the meitah) knowing that his mother was being taken care of by people who knew her and loved her instead of by strangers in Hungary. 

Love you,”

I responded:

“Dear Friend;

Even the simplest lacework is comprised of many, many separate individual threads, drawn together, attached to one another in such a way that something entirely different results from the newly connected strands. Though I would not have thought of it on my own, I must say that lacework is a most fitting analog for taharah. Each of the ritual steps is a thread of connection and the goal cannot be realized without the work of many hands bringing many threads together.

For our women’s teams, there’s never been a rote and automatic taharah.  Each one is different and the participants connect somewhat differently each time, but always with a sense of shared purpose and deep feeling. Our members are grateful to have had the trust of many families [in the congregation].

Of course, I will accept these lovely gifts and distribute them, though I cannot promise a delivery date. On behalf of the unnamed women whose handiwork delivered [Hebrew name of meitah] I thank you and X [name of son of meitah] for gifting each of us with additional threads of connection.  And love.”

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.





Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th (8-9:30 pm EST) and one on January 4th (12-1:30 pm EST). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course looks as well at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Includes spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization receive a 20% discount. There are clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.


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