(Reflections from Chevra Kavod HaMet and Hevra Kaddisah of Portland participants & call for volunteers (see bottom of story)
PHOTO: Chevra Kavod HaMet cochair David Lewis, right, is a retired computer engineer and a member of Havurah Shalom. He has been involved with taharot for 20 years, first in Santa Cruz, Calif., and in Portland since 2011. He cochairs Chevra Kavod haMet with Sharon Fendrich, a member of Neveh Shalom who has been a member of the chevra since 2014. She came to be part of this holy work after a powerful experience with the Chevra Kadisha of Eugene, which prepared her beloved grandmother for burial in 2011. Sharon is an award-winning neoclassical music composer, vocalist and pianist.
BY DAVID LEWIS
“Preparing someone for burial requires from us the utmost in care and respect for that individual, for how we treat our dead reflects how we should treat everyone.” Thus begins the ceremony of tahara, which we, the members of Chevra Kavod HaMet, perform for all Jews who want it here in Portland – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and non-affiliated. (The Hevra Kaddisha of Portland serves Orthodox congregations and others requesting traditional Jewish burial.)
It is for all of us one of the most tender, loving, caring and intimate things we do. Let me tell a story.
My parents both were nonpracticing Jews, and both had made arrangements for their bodies to be cremated and their ashes scattered at sea. I was there when they died. The people who came to take them were kind and professional. But in both cases, they told me to take a walk, saying that I would not want to see what they were about to do, that it would not be something I would want as my last memory of them.
Later, when I found out about the Chevra Kadisha in my community and what they did, I realized that this was something so loving and caring and present that it was exactly what I would want as my last memory of someone. We wash them slowly and carefully; I personally have always thought of how this man’s mother would have washed him as an infant and try to do it with the same love and care. Then we pour water to simulate immersion in a flowing mountain stream, mayim chayim, living waters, to purify them of the sins we all accrete in our journey through this world. We dry them and clothe them in the simple linen garments worn by the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies; garments, that in our case, are sewn by volunteers who are also members of our community. Then we wrap them in a shroud and place them into a simple pine box. They wear their kippah and tallit, one of the fringes cut off and placed in the sash of their garment since they can no longer pray with it. We close the aron (the same word we use for the ark, and this is not a coincidence, since it contains something equally holy), and we roll it into a room where other members guard it until the time of burial.
If you have someone you are close to who is dying, please contact your congregation, which can give you more information, or Holman’s Funeral Service directly if you do not belong to a synagogue. (To volunteer, see box on next page.)
Most of our work is done through Holman’s, although some is done through Riverview. We occasionally have travelled to perform a tahara in other funeral homes or in rural areas where people have obtained a permit for a private burial on their own property. The text requesting volunteers includes all particulars, so that anyone who is not comfortable either physically or ritually can simply not participate that time.
Let me close with something personal, just one of the reasons that I do this work. We are all individuals, and I cannot speak for anyone else. I travel by bicycle. Coming home after performing a tahara, I ride through a quiet neighborhood, the trees vibrant even in winter, the bicycle silent except for the hiss of the tires on the pavement. Reaching the city, and starting to see people going about their lives, is like havdalah in a way, a rejoining of the stream of ordinary life. Coming home, I feel the differences between life and death and have the sense that every moment – here, now – is important, to be valued and not rushed through in haste. I feel more profoundly alive than at almost any other time.
Hevra Kaddisha of Portland members reflect on mitzvah
In recent years, two members of the Hevra Kaddisha of Portland, Jon Perrin and Eve Levy, have shared touching tributes about the mitzvah of caring for the deceased.
Jon Perrin wrote a piece in 2007 about his first experience helping to prepare the body of a deceased person for his funeral. Following are excerpts from his essay, which can be read in full at https://www.aish.com/sp/so/Touching_Death.html:
I was careful to remind myself that this was a man – someone’s father, brother, uncle or husband. We did our best to maintain an atmosphere of modesty and kept him covered as much as possible.
I have been to a number of funerals and been among the mourners. There, everyone focuses on dealing with the living because that is whom the funeral is truly for. Having been one who focuses on the dead, and after escorting this man as he left the mortuary, I have a new perspective.
Eve Levy, who recently moved to the Chicago area, penned a piece in 2018, the first time she participated in a chevra. She stepped in to assist when her friend’s mother died, and one chevra member was injured and could not participate. Following are excerpts from her essay, which can be read in full at https://www.aish.com/sp/so/Preparing-My-Friends-Mother-for-Burial.html:
As a child growing up in Toronto, my mother volunteered for the chevra, but I never really knew what it entailed. I had learnt that this volunteer work is considered the highest form of chesed, (lovingkindness) that one can do for another person. The reason for that is that you could never be paid back in this world. It is an act of giving completely for the sake of giving.
We started with the head, washing her hair and rinsing the soap out ever so gently. Each hair that fell out was collected and placed in a linen bag to be buried with the body. Each limb was washed, one at a time, with so much respect and care. The body was covered at all times.
I felt an intense sense of peace descend as we finished preparing her for burial.
In addition, Levy spoke with longtime Chevra Kadisha volunteer Dr. Donna Kuttner about the mitzvah of caring for the deceased in a recent podcast, “The Ultimate Kindness – Preparing to Meet One’s Maker: Demystifying Jewish Burial.” The 37-minute program is available at facebook.com/eve.levy.37/videos/3968921329887631 and on Apple podcasts.
Burial societies seek volunteers
Chevra Kavod HaMet
Chevra Kavod HaMet is recruiting volunteers for both its men’s and women’s burial society teams. In addition, the chevra is gearing up to provide taharot for trans and non-binary people. As part of that effort, the chevra is actively recruiting trans and non-binary members.
Volunteers are needed for teams who perform taharot, who act as shomrim guarding the body and who sew tachrichim, the sets of shrouds and garments. The sewing crew meets once a month; suspended during the pandemic, the sewing group intends to resume work once the team is vaccinated.
New members are interviewed to determine where they would best fit and what their existing level of experience is, but no experience is required. During the pandemic, interviews have been done via Zoom, which will continue to be offered as an option as the chevra resumes in-person operations. The women’s team recently performed its first in-person tahara since the pandemic began.
Members who perform taharot are trained in person, both in the ritual and procedures to keep everyone safe, including proper donning and removal of PPE. Then volunteers act as readers during their first taharot to see how the team works.
If you are moved to participate, visit chevrakavodhamet.org or email email@example.com.
Hevra Kaddisha of Portland
The Hevra Kaddisha of Portland welcomes new volunteers to help with the sacred task of caring for the dead. Tahara (purification and preparing the dead for the final journey) is an age-old ritual. During the pandemic, the Hevra Kaddisha of Portland continued to provide in-person taharot under strict protocols outlined by the National Association of Chevra Kadisha under the leadership of Rabbi Elchonon Zohn in conjunction with leading epidemiologists and public health experts. The Hevra Kaddisha of Portland offers its services to all Jews regardless of affiliation throughout the Willamette Valley.
No prior experience is required. For more information, or to schedule a training or observe to see if it’s a mitzvah for you, please contact Michael Rosenberg, head of the Hevra Kaddisha, firstname.lastname@example.org, 503-519-2454; or the co-chairs of the women’s section of the Hevra Kaddisha of Portland Donna Kuttner, email@example.com, and Adele Epstein, firstname.lastname@example.org, 503-539-2391.