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Furloughed by the Chevra Kadisha

I tied a special knot on a special garment, and I was initiated into the near-secret society that cares for the dead
Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life: June Dorothy Goldberg, Coordinator of Woman's Tahara by Yves Mozelsio, Chicago, Illinois, 1998. (Facebook)

I miss my Sunday morning routine. Gym, newspapers, cemetery. It’s my Chevra Kadisha day, and I’m on duty, waiting for the text informing me what time to turn up to prepare the body for a funeral later that day. However, when lockdown was announced, the Chevra Kadisha instructed those over 70 and/or at high risk, to stay home. So I’ve been furloughed — having had bypass surgery three years ago, I now await new instructions for when I can zip up the motorway to the award-winning Bushey cemetery.

While COVID-19 mercilessly robbed many mourners of attending a funeral, sitting shivah or saying kaddish, it also robbed those who died of COVID-19 of the traditional tahara — the process whereby the body is carefully washed and tenderly dressed in the tachrichim [shrouds] in preparation for burial. Over the last few months, different communities made their own accommodations – largely dictated by the laws of their own country: in some places, those who died of COVID-19 were placed directly into a coffin with the tachrichim placed on top, in others, a modified tahara took place, or in others, a complete tahara in hazmat suits was possible.

A few years ago, I wanted to mark a milestone birthday and gave myself the gift of joining the Chevra Kadisha. Until I understood the Chevra’s job, I often wondered how my parents were prepared for their own burials. It is no longer a mystery, even though there is something celestial about the invisibility of the Chevra’s work. Did those angels who prepared my parents’ bodies notice the tattoo A10927 on my father’s forearm; did they pay attention to the vertical scar along my mother’s belly attesting to an old-fashioned C-section?

When I joined the Chevra, I was repeatedly told that participation should not be discussed publicly. I had no problem with this at all, and didn’t mention a word. In fact, I appreciated the secrecy and anonymity. Acts involving the dead are referred to as a ‘mitzvah shel emet’ – a deed of truth – for there is no possibility of reciprocity, no opportunity to cut a ‘deal’ with someone.  It was a welcome antidote to the noise of communal politics and jockeying for positions of power.

However, a conversation with an American woman visiting London completely changed my perspective. I don’t even remember exactly how it came up, but she blithely started talking about her involvement in her local Chevra Kadisha. I was shocked that she was so forthcoming, and although I did not confess my own involvement, I gingerly said something along the lines of ‘I’m surprised you’re talking about it — from what I’ve heard in London, it’s a bit of a taboo to talk about it.’ She shrugged her shoulders, bemused at the thought of not talking about such a meaningful rite that embraces life and death in one foul swoop.

Everyone remembers their first taharah. I stood in awe as a team of four women carried out their work. As part of my induction, I had come to observe. The deceased [referred to as the ‘meis’] was a lady in her 90s – the care taken to preserve this woman’s dignity was breathtaking. On average, a taharah takes about 45 minutes and at no point did it feel like a rushed job. She lay fetus-like and they gently unfurled her, caressed her hands as they took off her nail polish and softly untangled her hair. Eventually, she became a woman reconstituted, dressed in the simple white shrouds, ready to meet her Maker.  I remember hoping that this woman mattered to someone. Lying there, stripped of her history, I asked myself, ‘What was important to her? What were her dreams? Did she have a happy life or a difficult life? What would she say to us?’  As an observer, I was completely passive, but just towards the end, the team leader asked me if I would like to do one small thing and gave me the opportunity to make one of the special knots that secures the garments in place. I nervously did the task – and consider that as my first real act of initiation into the Chevra Kadisha.

A couple of days later, I received a call to check if I still wanted to be involved — the observation allows you to opt-out with no hard feelings, but in fact, it convinced me that this task was my destiny. On my first official Sunday, women with years of experience welcomed me as the newbie and encouraged me to ask any questions. The day after, the team leader called, ‘Was I OK? Did I find it traumatic? Was it emotionally too difficult?’  This level of pastoral care is both reassuring but also an excellent professional protocol.

I have yet to deal with a baby or teenage suicide – they must be simply heart-wrenching and I presume there’s a ‘crack Chevra Kadisha team’ of very experienced women called upon for these particularly difficult situations. Women in their 50s have been difficult enough — knowing it could have been me. Wondering why it hasn’t been me.

The challenges facing the Chevra Kadisha mirror those facing the Jewish community. While mixed-faith families may have discussed how they want to raise their children, have they taken the time to discuss their mixed-faith burial rites and sites? How does a Chevra Kadisha operate sensitively to include transgender and gender nonconforming Jews in traditional Jewish death and burial practices? The Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston offers a framework for consideration.

I have a visceral negative reaction to cremation, no doubt influenced by my family’s experience of the Holocaust, but anecdotally, it appears that more Jewish people are opting for it. Cremation has been in the spotlight during COVID-19: forbidden in Jewish law, certain countries mandated cremation to stop spreading the virus, much to the distress of the Bercovich [no relation] family in Argentina. In the UK, the government tried to mandate cremation for all  COVID-19 victims, however, Jewish and Muslim organizations successfully lobbied the government to respect the religious traditions of those opposed to cremation.

A  Chevra Kadisha is taken for granted until it doesn’t exist. While large communities with a functioning religious infrastructure will ensure its members are buried according to Jewish tradition, what of dwindling, or less affiliated communities? The work of the Chevra Kadisha needs to be protected, publicly appreciated and understood. Younger people need to understand that this too will be part of their future communal obligation. However, we are at risk: despite a number of well-resourced initiatives, the majority of young Jewish people are not particularly engaged with Jewish life. There’s no reason to think that they will be particularly engaged with Jewish death.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, now available on Amazon.com and abebooks.co.uk A mix of memoir, sociology, history, and acute observations focusing on Orthodoxy and feminism, this 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since the book was first published in 1997. Her writings are on her site www.sallyberkovic.com
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