November 16, 2018

Gamliel Institute Celebrates its First Graduating Class

[Ed. Note: The following is a report about the graduation of the first class from the Gamliel Institute, the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The graduates all completed the five semester-long core courses, as well as accomplishing a significant project that makes a contribution to the field or Chevrah Kadisha and/or Jewish Cemetery work. In addition, fourteen of the graduates also completed a sixth course that had as its centerpiece a study mission, including travel to New York, Prague, and Israel, and engagement with others involved in this work, and study of relevant materials, artifacts, texts, and locations.  — JB]


The Talmud, in Kiddushim 40b, recounts: Once, Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the attic in the house of Nitzah, in Lod. This question was posed to them: Which is greater, study (Torah) or action (mitzvot)? Rabbi Tarfon answered, “Action is greater.” Rabbi Akiva answered, “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action, because study leads to action.

Text Box: Some 1900 years later, we still see evidence favoring Akiva’s position. In June 2016, the Gamliel Institute celebrated its first siyyum, a ceremony marking the completion of a course of study, for fourteen individuals ready to assume and continue leadership roles in the realm of Jewish funeral and bereavement practices.


Gamliel Institute is a comprehensive leadership training program that addresses the end-of-life continuum of care from a Jewish perspective.  Founded just eight years ago, the Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), an organization which provides training and resources for funeral practice and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the US and Canada. The name, Kavod v’Nichum, refers to the Jewish principles of k’vod hamet (respectful treatment of the dead) and nichum aveilim (comforting mourners).  Kavod v’Nichum has sponsored annual conferences since 2003, throughout the United States and Canada.  This year’s conference at Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts included the first Puerto Rican participants.


Text Box: Rabbi Stuart Kelman and David ZinnerUltimately, under Zinner’s and Kelman’s patient development, a sequence of five courses came to life.  The students meet online weekly for 12 weeks in each course, and so far 120 individuals have taken at least one course, some for credit at their rabbinical seminaries.  Others have participated in a ‘Taste of Gamliel’. Course assignments emphasize both academic pursuits (tahara liturgy, relevant Talmudic texts) and training for action (organizing a tahara crew, helping families negotiate funeral planning, advising on ethical wills).  The coursework culminates in a final project and in a study mission to New York, Prague, and Israel. Naturally, the trip to Israel includes a visit to the grave of Rabban Gamliel, the 2nd century Nasi of the Sanhedrin who, seeing the funeral excesses among Israelite society, ruled that all Jews would to be buried wearing simple, inexpensive white garments.


The siyyum included presentations by many of the graduates of their culminating work in the Gamliel Institute program. Some participants chose particular tefilot as their focus, sharing remarks that used personal stories to illuminate the power of liturgy. Rabbi Joe Blair, Dean of Administration for the Gamliel Institute, presented his study of the memorial prayer El Malei Rahamim.  Text Box: Rena BoroditskyRena Boroditsky, executive director of Chesed Shel Emes non-profit funeral home in Winnipeg, shared her analysis of Birkat haCohanim.  







Dan Fendel collaborated with Rabbi Kelman to create a scholarly book “Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness, Exploring the Meaning of Tahara” (EKS Publishing), delving deeply into the tahara liturgy both analytically and spiritually.


Text Box: Edna StewartOther students created projects that focused on practical applications of their studies. 


Edna Stewart, RN, described the program she created to reach out to unaffiliated Jews in the East Bay area of California, culminating in a series of community-wide learnings. 


Ellie Barbarash, an occupational safety consultant, worked on creating a safety brochure for tahara teams.






 Rick Light, already the author of a number of volumes on tahara practices, described the culminating study mission that participants took to New York, Prague, tahara is performed for fallen soldiers.   “We were the first outside group allowed in,” he told us. 










Vickie Weitzenhofer spoke of the trip, too, eloquently describing gifts carried home ‘not in a suitcase’,  gifts ‘value-added but not taxed’.

The siyyum ended with the recitation of the traditional Hadran, modified by Rabbi Kelman for this occasion.  Rabbi Kelman’s explanation connected this culminating evening to the 

Text Box: completion of other studies throughout the history of the Jewish people.  Indeed, ‘connection’ seemed to be the buzzword of participants’ experience.  Stewart spoke of visiting her grandparents’ graves in New York, and feeling connected to the tahara workers who had seen to the proper burial of all those interred there.  Jean Berman shared impressions of her visit toPrague, grateful for the record the historic Jewish community there had left of its funeral practices.  Nancy Dotti spoke of the connection she felt with the mystics of Tzefat, where the Gamliel students participated in study sessions with women from the Tzefat Chevra Kadisha.  Speaking of the mystics, she said, “When we do this work, we continue their path.”  And more than one student spoke of connections to the life beyond us, of feeling like ‘midwives to the next world’.


 Other graduates include Robin Black, Rabbi Me’irah Illiinsky, Rabbi Myrna Matsa, Laura Rocco and Kerry Swartz.



Text Box: The leadership of Rabbi Joe Blair, Dean of Administration,
David Zinner and Rabbi Stuart Kelman is acknowledged by Nancy
Dotti.Rabbi Joe Blair, Dean of Administration, David Zinner, and Rabbi
Stuart Kelman are acknowledged by Nancy DottiWith the leadership of the Gamliel Institute graduates at the ready, the Jewish community is well-poised to better understand and preserve our texts and rituals, to comfort and guide mourners, and to respond to new challenges at the end-of-life.


Rachel Braun has served on tahara teams in the Washington, DC area for twenty years. She is a Judaic embroidery designer and author of the forthcoming Embroidery and Sacred Text, and her work can be seen at her website, .  When she’s not embroidering, Rachel works as high school math teacher and part-time statistical consultant.




Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

Fall 2016:

Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered over twelve weeks from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. There will be an orientation session on September 5th for those unfamiliar with the online course platform used, and/or who have not used an online webinar/class presentation tool in past.

The focus of this course is on practices and all ritual and liturgy (excluding Taharah & Shmirah, which are covered in Course 2). This deals specifically with ritual and practice towards and at the end of life, the moment of death, preparation for the funeral, the funeral, and rituals of mourning and remembrance. This course also includes modules dealing with Funeral Homes and Cemeteries.

There is no prerequisite for this course; you are welcome to take it with no prior knowledge or experience. Please register, note it on your calendar, and plan to attend. Please note that there are registration discounts available for three or more persons from the same organization, and for clergy and students. There are also some scholarship funds available on a need basis.

You can “> A full description of the courses is there as well. For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website or on the

Please contact us for information or assistance. or, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.




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