Black text = links to be completed soon!
Jewish Death Practices:
Learning & Resources:
More About Kavod v'Nichum
Kavod v'Nichum - Honor and Comfort
Rabbi Stuart Kelman, President
Rick Light, Joyce Friedman and Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs, Vice-Presidents
The phenomenon of death is mysterious. The occurrence of death is very real, often a shattering blow to the life and faith of the survivors. They need the spiritual support of their community and the community needs a way to offer support through traditional, sanctioned ritual. The ritual offers a religious way to make manifest that the mourner is not alone, this is the way of all the world, and you will come through it. The Chevra Kadisha provides the mourner and the community an authentic pathway; they don't need to improvise or look to a commercial funeral director for guidance. Your Jewish congregation knows your loss and cares for you; as a Jew you will also care for others.
We Have a Rich Death History
Jewish practices have always provided an avenue for community support from sickness to death, from funeral to burial, from grieving to comforting. We trace our Jewish practices of burial to when Abraham bought a burial place for Sarah, and of shiva to when Joseph mourned for his father Jacob for seven days. We learn from Job to listen to the mourner, as we should do when we comfort them. Rabbi Gamliel in the 1st century CE established the principle of equality and economy in death. As far back as the 1300’s, we have commentary on the Chevra Kadisha performing funerals and burials, promoting community cohesion and supporting Jewish continuity. The Chevra Kadisha helped to comfort the bereaved during time of need. It was “bedrock”, not a peripheral part, in the lives of Jews.
Acting death in movies and television pervades our experience. However we rarely see real death, which now is more common at the hospital or nursing home. Our aversion to death combined with our societal emphasis on youth, have pre-disposed us to willingly give up care of the dead.
The advent of the funeral business and American style funerals elevated the undertaker to a position of religious authority. Jewish death rituals are now in the hands of for-profit companies that own funeral homes and cemeteries. Many of them have been bought by international publicly traded companies, which have no connection with our local communities. Services and products promoted by these companies substitute prevailing American practices, such as embalming and cosmetizing the body and exhibiting it in a lavish coffin at a pre-funeral reception, for traditional Jewish practices.
Jewish families receive little guidance or emotional support at their time of need. They pay exorbitantly for funerals and may attempt to save money by choosing cremation. Families are often treated badly by cemeteries and may become victims of cemetery mismanagement. Sensitivity, caring, and spirituality seem to be absent from Judaism.
Recapturing Our Tradition
The control of Jewish death ritual should be in the community. Rabbi Arnold Goodman helped organize a Chevra Kadisha in 1975 at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Minneapolis. His book, A Plain Pine Box, is a call to action advocating a return to simple, traditional Jewish funerals. The Chevra Kadisha model described by Goodman was taken up and enhanced in the Washington area by Teferith Israel Synagogue. Only a year later the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington (JFPCGW) was organized and has grown steadily since then. Now representing over 40 synagogues, this group holds true the to message of a return to affordable, traditional Jewish funeral practice.
Throughout the United States and Canada, other pockets of Jews, in rural and urban areas, large synagogues and small, are also heeding the call to full participation in Jewish funeral practices and return of control to the community. A modern Chevra Kadisha may provide pre-need education and negotiate funeral and burial agreements. In some larger congregations, 50-75 people may participate as chaverim who work directly with the bereaved and mediate between them and the funeral and burial providers, or perform the washing (tahara) ritual, or guard the body until it is buried (shmira), or provide a meal of condolence, or set up and lead shiva, or stay in touch with the bereaved for some period after death. In a few years, they serve scores or hundreds of their fellow Jews, who don't forget.
There are numerous traditional Orthodox Chevrei Kadisha that provide Tahara for anyone in the community. In Chicago, there is a non-profit funeral contract. In Los Angeles a Conservative synagogue, and in Seattle an Orthodox synagogue, own and operates a cemetery and funeral home. In New York City, a federation of Jewish institutions purchased and operates a funeral home.
The Next Step
Until now there have been few organized resources available! The existence of these models is a well-kept secret The most highly developed Jewish community in history has no way to provide consistent, comprehensive education and training in this important area. Death and dying are rarely on the national agenda. There are no departments in our federations that focus on funeral practices, burial or grieving.
North American Jewry needed an organization which can develop materials, create outreach and organizing strategies, and provide technical assistance in all areas related to Jewish, funeral, burial and mourning practices. These are now broadly available to, synagogues and their movements, communities and federations. We see a time when the Chevra Kadisha is again a known and valued part of every synagogue or Jewish community. We began this important work by forming Kavod v’Nichum - Honor and Comfort.
Kavod v'Nichum - Our Mission
We take our organization's name, Kavod v'Nichum, from the basic purposes of the Chevra Kadisha. Our mission is to restore to Jewish death and bereavement practice, the traditions and values of honoring the dead (kavod hamet) and comforting the bereaved (nichum avelim). We encourage communities and synagogues to take control of funerals and burials in accordance with their own Jewish orientation. Funerals should be subject to their direction. Kavod v'Nichum will help bring the rituals of death into the synagogue community. We want to educate the entire Jewish community in the power of the mitzvot of honoring the dead, comforting the bereaved, and protecting and shielding bereaved families from exploitation.
Our work is important because it changes the lives of the people it touches. The volunteer gives without thought of reward. The bereaved receive beyond any expectation. The local Chevrei are valuable not only for what they do, but for the unity and affection they bring about in Jewish congregations and communities. The bond that is built becomes the basis for further community growth and development.
We work with bereaved families not only because there is an immediate need, but also because we understand that helping families and friends through their grief provides a bond that can be the foundation for a strong synagogue community. Communities will benefit from heightened cooperation between the different branches of Judaism. Synagogues will see enhanced member participation and strengthened intergenerational continuity. Leaders will see opportunities for their Jewish institutions to be involved in new educational activities or in activities to provide funeral and burial services. Individuals will deepen their spirituality and appreciation for life.
We are poised to unlock a part of Judaism that has been hidden for too long. It has the potential for greatness if we can nurture and guide it on its way.
What Do We Do?
- Convene North American Chevra Kadisha conferences to provide education, hands on training and networking opportunities.
- Publish Jewish Funerals Burial and Mourning, an extensive internet resource.
- Publish Chevra Kadisha News, a periodical e-newsletter.
- Create awareness among Jewish leadership of the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community in the area of traditional practice around death.
- Respond to requests and assist synagogues and community organizations that need help in organizing a Chevra Kadisha or bereavement committee
- Design a synagogue member education program and train Chevra members to deliver it.
- Communicate different organizational models, from the Chevra that buys a cemetery and a funeral home, to one that contracts for services, to one that does only Tahara or only meals of condolence or shiva.
- Develop and publish resource materials on the origins and practices of all Jewish aspects of the death life cycle, including sample contracts between Jewish communities and funeral homes and cemeteries.
- Facilitate Jewish activity in the area of traditional funeral practice with involvement in and wholehearted support of all Judaism's branches.
- Locate goods and services needed for traditional funerals and burials.
- Strongly advocate consumer protection especially at times of bereavement.
Kavod v'Nichum brings education and technical assistance to synagogues and communities. We have worked with many synagogues and communities throughout North America.
We encourage and assist the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrei Kadisha in synagogues and communities so that they can perform these mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide education and assistance to congregants. We provide information, education and technical assistance that will help bring these important life cycle events back into the synagogue.
What Models Exist?
- A new synagogue based Chevra Kadisha is often inspired by a workshop, lecture or a traumatic event. The core group will study, bring in speakers, train and organize to provide various services to the synagogue. They may work with a commercial funeral home, but reserve for themselves the education of their community, advising the bereaved, performing rituals, and standing between the bereaved and the funeral director.
- Existing synagogue bereavement or caring committees or Bikkur Holim groups may see gaps in service to congregants and will further evolve into a Chevra Kadisha, using their base of structure and volunteers.
- A Community Chevra Kadisha, which provides Tahara and other services, works especially well in smaller or more rural communities. One synagogue alone may not have enough volunteers to provide these services.
- The umbrella model, such as The Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington whose members number over 40 synagogues of all denominations, is particularly effective. JFPCGW contracts with a local funeral home for a traditional low cost funeral. The committee has extensive negotiating experience, with continuity throughout the 25 years of negotiations. They also provide volunteers to train new Chevrei Kadisha, hold community wide education workshops on traditional Jewish funeral practice and are developing a cemetery code of conduct.
- Many synagogues have an agreement with a local cemetery for fixed price burials. Some have a reserved synagogue section in a cemetery. Others own their own cemetery. Any of these activities can be used as a starting place to further organize a Chevra Kadisha.
- A non-profit Jewish cemetery association, which provides management, maintenance, and restoration, counts 120 of the 168 Jewish cemeteries in Massachusetts as members. This kind of organization can provide community wide education and foster the development of enhanced Chevrei Kadisha.
- A funeral home that the New York Attorney General forced SCI to divest was purchased as a Jewish communal effort. We need understand how monopoly forces and be ready to act when the opportunity is present.
- In Los Angeles, Seattle and in some other communities, a synagogue owns a funeral home and cemetery and provides service to the entire Jewish community. The economics of operating a funeral home will often keep prices high. The control over practices make this an alluring option.
Our initial partner was the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington (JFPCGW). JFPCGW has 27 years of experience in providing education and assistance regarding Jewish traditions of funeral, burial, and mourning, to synagogues. The 17 members of its steering committee, as well as the bereavement committees and chevrei kadisha of the 40 members, have accumulated hands-on experience that helped Kavod v'Nichum get off to a quick start. The chaverim, Rabbis, cantors and administrators can be called on to provide guidance and direction.
Organizing Kavod v'Nichum
Kavod v'Nichum has gathered an active and knowledgeable group of men and women, lay leaders and Rabbis, from different movements, who are dedicated to the development and growth of Chevrei Kadisha. We have not yet completed filling all of our board positions.
Rabbi Stuart Kelman President Berkeley, CA
Rick Light, VP Los Alamos, NM
Joyce Friedman, VP Oklahoma City, OK
Laurie Dinerstein Kurs, VP Princeton, NJ
Bruce Bloom Los Angeles, CA
Rena Boroditsky Winnipeg, MB
Michelle Caplan Portland, OR
Carol Cunradi Berkeley, CA
Rabbi Moshe Epstein Bridgeport, CT
Malke Frank Pittsburgh, PA
Shaul Ginsburg Brooklyn, NY
Rabbi Mel Glazer Colorado Springs, CO
Lynn Greenhough Victoria, BC
Bob Hausman Washington, DC
Reba Herzfeld Atlanta, GA
Rabbi Linda Holtzman Philadelphia, PA
Yvette Kaweblum Boca Raton, FL
Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski Chicago, IL
Michael Slater Chicago, IL
Jackie Stromer Teaneck, NJ
Vicki Weitzenhofer Richmond, VA
David Zinner, Executive Director
Our advisory board will include additional Rabbis, lay leaders, authors and educators.
Kavod v’Nichum is actively looking for financial support for our many projects.
We are seeking grants to support conference, organizing, and resource development. If you or your organization would like to make a contribution, please send it to our address below.
Web Site - Jewish Funerals, Burial and Mourning
A big step towards building a larger presence began in January 1998 with the launch of a web site titled Jewish Funerals, Burial and Mourning. It is a comprehensive resource, now with over 300 articles and pages of information including links to Jewish and other resources on death, funeral practice, burial, cemeteries, mourning and healing, suicide, organ donation, consumer rights and the death care industry.
Located at http://www.Jewish-funerals.org, and co-sponsored with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. Together we have developed and maintain a site visited by over 3/4 of a million people.
The Chevra Kadisha Organizing Conference
Kavod v'Nichum sponsors the North American Chevra Kadisha Conference. The focus of these has been to identify, network and provide resources and assistance to Chevrei Kadisha and bereavement committees in U.S. and Canadian synagogues and communities.
The first Chevra Kadisha Conference was held June 22-24, 2003 in Rockville, Maryland. It brought together 200 representatives from large and small communities, both urban and rural, including current Chevra Kadisha members, congregational cemetery board members, lay leaders, rabbis, funeral directors from community and synagogue owned funeral homes educators, counselors and authors, from all denominations. The second conference was in Las Vegas held June 6-8, 2004 and had 70 attendees. Additional conferences have been in New York City; Portland, Oregon; Edmonton, Alberta and Edison, New Jersey.
The Chevra Kadisha conferences provided needed resources for emerging and established Chevrei Kadisha in one place including a wealth of information from experts experienced in organizing and operating a Chevra Kadisha, educating its members and in understanding political realities. The conference workshops look at models ranging up to community owned funeral homes and will provide networking opportunities for the participants. And most important the conference build support for Kavod v’Nichum, and its mission of increasing knowledge and practice of Jewish traditions around death, burial and mourning.
The two-day Conferences include presentations, plenary lectures, exhibits, hands-on demonstrations, group brainstorming, and networking. We present workshops on organizing a Chevra Kadisha, practical demonstrations on how to do Tahara, discussions of cemetery management, examples of negotiated funeral contracts and hear about the struggles to start a community owned non-profit funeral home. We explore Chevra Kadisha practices and models that range from simple to comprehensive. And we discuss the history, the current state and the future of the Chevra Kadisha movement. Participants gain knowledge and leadership skills to start or enhance their local Chevra and they learn where they can turn to find additional help and resources in their work. More conference information.
Poised For the Future
The Chevra Kadisha movement is blossoming throughout the United States and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum encourages, assists, and empowers local Chevrei Kadisha to fully participate in funerals and burials in their communities, in accordance with their own Jewish orientation.
When we experience a death in our family we know that the intercession of the Chevra Kadisha lifts the burden of making arrangements and provides us the space to focus on the memories of our loved ones and the attendant emotions. Bereavement is an emotional and spiritual journey, fraught with physical and psychological barriers. Bereavement is also an opportunity for growth and service. There can be no higher mitzvah than the work of honoring the dead and comforting the bereaved. The work is chesed shel emet, an act of loving kindness, because the dead cannot return that kindness.
Contact us at:
David Zinner, Executive Director
8112 Sea Water Path
Columbia, MD 21045