The Best Kept Jewish Secret


“You should do it, it’ll give you something to write about!” Rochel effused in her inimitable, hard to refuse way.

She wanted me to be part of the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial society. I knew that such an organization existed, but, I mean, who actually wants to join this club? When Rochel suggested I consider becoming a member, I felt a little obligated and more than a little intrigued, so I said I would give it a try. A few days later, I got a call from Naomi, a woman Rochel described as an expert at performing the tahara, the process by which Jews are prepared for burial.

“Are you available at 5 tonight?” Naomi asked almost cryptically. I answered that I was; she told me they would be expecting me at the funeral home. I should go straight to the back.

Although our conversation was brief, I noticed a distinctive lilt in her voice.

As I walked into the funeral home exactly at 5, I felt a quiet rush of Jewish connectedness; I didn’t know what I was doing but I felt privileged to be doing it. I walked through the back doors of that warm, plant-filled chapel everyone knows and entered into the other room, the place where the tahara happens.

Two women were already there and so was the mais, the body of the deceased woman.

When the two other women arrived and the process got fully underway, communication was almost exclusively through hand motioning and head nodding. (Naomi had told me earlier that conversation would be minimal during the process, but I didn’t realize how minimal.) I learned later that the departed person’s neshama, the soul, is actually present in the room, hovering between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Apparently, under these circumstance, the less said the better.

There’s not much to tell you about the tahara process because it’s meant to be done with the utmost privacy and respect for the body of the deceased. I can tell you that it’s gentle and loving, that it’s known as chesed shel emes (true kindness) because the deceased person can never repay the favor. I can tell you there are selfless people in every Jewish community all over the world who perform this mitzvah and almost nobody knows who they are. I can tell you that it’s not hypocritical for people to choose Jewish burials even if those same people didn’t choose to live Jewish lives.

Jewish burial preparation is one of those things Jews have done for thousands of years, but it’s one those Jewish things I had never experienced. In the brief hour I spent with these women, I felt humbled to be in the presence of people who provide such an essential link in the chain of Jewish life–yet they do it all in secret. I guess when you spend such intimate time with G-d, that’s job satisfaction enough.

I saw the burial process as a strikingly clear convergence of matter and spirit–the essence of Judaism. In that one hour in the back of a funeral home, I saw in a new way how all Jews are connected, even Jews whose life force has left them. My presence in the room that day may have added only a tiny link to this holy chain, but the experience was enough to give me a whole new appreciation for life, especially Jewish life.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?