September 22, 2019

Encountering familiar strangers

[Editor’s Note: 18 students of the Gamliel Institute, the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum, having successfully completed all courses and requirements as part of the certification process by the Gamliel Institute, participated in, and recently returned from, the first ever Study Mission that was at the heart of the capstone course in the Gamliel program. They studied, visited, learned, taught, met and connected with people and organizations involved in the mitzvot of Kavod Hameit and Nichum Aveilim in New York, Prague, and Israel (Including Tsefat and Jerusalem, among other sites). The study mission was groundbreaking, in that it exposed the Gamliel students to practices internationally, but even more so in that it created a dialogue and initiated relationships between Jews in all these places around the mitzvoth that are shared, though very differently practiced in the details. It is an opening on which to build to create a conversation and a sharing of best practices, learning, and mutual respect, cutting across boundaries of geography, denomination or practice, and time.

This blog entry is one of a series of entries, written by various Gamliel graduates, and presenting their takes and thoughts on various aspects of the trip.   — JB]


At the recent Gamliel Institute sponsored symposium of Chevrah Kadisha and spiritual care folks in Jerusalem, I sat down next to a stranger.  Not only was her name also Rena, (and with the same spelling, a rare occurrence), but it turned out we had a Winnipeg connection through her nephew, a Jewish educator, who lived here for few years.

We were in a study session about Taharah liturgy, exploring the passages and prayers recited by the Chevrah Kadisha during a taharah, ritual preparation of the deceased. 

The other Rena immediately recognized that one of the words in the “Chamol”, the opening Taharah prayer, is also found in the Tefillat haDerech, the Traveler's Prayer.   An unusual word, not familiar in any other context, pur’aniyot

Tefillat HaDerech, or the Traveler's Prayer, is hundreds of years old.  We recite it before the onset of a journey, asking God for protection, grace and mercy. In this context, we ask for Divine protection from pur’aniyot as “all kinds of punishment that rage and come to the world”, or “all calamities that threaten the world. “

Chamol is the opening prayer in the seder taharah.  The Chevrah members ask for God’s forgiveness, compassion, and mercy on behalf of the deceased. We pray that the soul will come to rest with the righteous in Gan Eden. In presenting a defense on behalf of the soul, we include a reminder of her Yichus, her lineage, as a child of our foreparents. We ask for redemption from suffering. Pur’aniyot is translated as “calamity, trouble, divine punishment.”

Both of these prayers are recited before a frightening and potentially dangerous journey.  One we recite on our own behalf, and one we have recited on our behalf by the Taharah team. The message is the same. Body and soul are embarking on a journey to the unknown. We ask for Divine grace and protection, and we ask to arrive at our destination in peace.

As a newcomer to the taharah liturgy, the other Rena was moved by the beauty of the prayers and the kavannot, intentions, of the Chevrah members. As we wash, purify and dress the meitah, we pray for her as she would have prayed for herself.  

This is the essence of Chesed, the relationship of trust and commitment the Chevrah Kadisha has with the community we serve.  


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.




Starting in October:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Tuesdays, 12 online sessions (orientation session Monday October 12th, classes Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST. An examination of the modern Chevrah Kadisha from 1626 in Prague, through history and geography, as imported to Europe and the rest of the world, and brought to the US; with a specific contemporary focus on North America, and how the Chevrah has developed and changed over time up to the present. Studies include text study, and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering two courses. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S), and Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy [Other than Taharah] (RPL). These courses will begin in January, and will each run for 12 sessions. More information to come, or visit the Gamliel Institute section of the Kavod v’Nichum website.


We are considering offering courses mid-day (East Coast time) as a convenience to those who have scheduling issues with the evening times now in use (including those overseas in Israel and other places). This is anticipated to be the same online format and material as the courses that have been offered in past, but at a time that works better for some than the evening (Eastern Standard). If you are interested in this option, please be in touch to let us know: we need to assess the level of interest as we determine whether to offer this option

Contact us for more information about scholarships, or any other questions. or call 410-733-3700.

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