by Rose Abrami
These two words mean "Honor and Comfort"; put together, they are also the name of an organization that arranged the first North American Chevra Kadisha Conference in Rockville, MD, which I attended in late June. This name is derived from two concepts - that of kavod hamet (honoring the dead) and nichum avelim (comforting the bereaved).
Lack of awareness and understanding of Jewish funeral and burial traditions has led to a gap in Jewish communal life. The purchase of many Jewish funeral homes by large multi-national conglomerates has resulted in rituals around death and burial becoming diluted and losing much of their purpose. Although this has happened, however, more communities are now seeking a way to take control of this important life-cycke event in accordance with our own Jewish tradition and, as a consequence, death and dying issues have reappeared on the Jewish agenda.
The conference, held from 22 to 24 June, was an inspiring and educational time, featuring plenary sessions interspersed with workshops, demonstrations and some of the best meals it has ever been my fortune to eat - and they were glatt kosher! What made the conference particularly unusual was that the whole range of Jews was there - from "Black Hat" Orthodox to Reconstructionist and everything in between - all working and eating together, sharing ideas, sources and experiences, separating to daven, each in our own way, and coming together again for the benefit of our respective communities.
Plenary speakers included Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; Rabbi Jack Riemer, head of the National Rabbinic Network and author or many poems and prayers, as well as editor of several books on ethical wills and associated subjects; and Dr David Wachtel, Senior Research Associate for Special Collections at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Five sets of workshops, which ran in parallel, fell into the categories of Taharah (ritual washing of a body), Cemetery, Funeral, Mourning and Bikkur Holim (visiting the sick) and offered such interesting topics that it was sometimes difficult to choose which to attend. Three which I found outstanding were one on traditional Jewish texts that provide the background to our understanding of bikkur holim, one on ethical wills and another on viddui (deathbed prayer of penitence).
David Zinner, the Executive Director of Kavod v'Nichum, is committed to re-introducing Jews to the wonderful traditions and customs of end-of-life ceremonies and he motivated delegates to pursue Chevra Kadisha matters on our return to our congregations, which is what I am doing now. I also hope to be given the opportunity to talk to people about this subject, so if anyone wants to invite me as a speaker, e.g. for ORT, Hadassah, Men's Club, Sisterhood or any other group, please call me at 623-546-8639.
For more information on the conference and the organization, visit the website at www.Jewish-funerals.org.