Jewish End-of-Life Wisdom
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BNAI KESHET:  11-22 for 11-28-13 issue. Media contact: Lisa Brennan, lisabrennan56@comcast.net  973-698-6217

Finding Spiritual Uplift in Building a Caring Community: Scholar-in-Residence David Zinner

Bnai Keshet 2013 scholar-in-residence David Zinner, founder and executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, (honor and comfort), a 13-year-old nonprofit center for Chevra Kadisha organizing, educating and training, leads community chevra training sessions, December 6-8. Congregants from Montclair-area synagogues and the unaffiliated are invited to attend.

Zinner plans to present a mix of sessions, starting Friday night with a history of the modern Chevra Kadisha movement among non-Orthodox Jews seeking to reclaim the tradition. Saturday he examines the textual basis for Jewish death and burial practices; and Sunday he conducts training sessions that include a live demonstration of tahara, the ritual washing, cleaning and dressing body for burial. Zinner’s assistant both days will be Eva Sax-Bolder, a rabbinic student and Chevra Kadisha member in New York. See full schedule below.

Zinner wrote, developed and co-teaches courses on Chevra Kadisha, Tahara and Shmira, and education and training strategies, in his role as executive director of Kavod v’Nichum’s Gamliel Institute, a non-denominational online educational program of study. Gamliel courses include training and advocacy of traditional Jewish practices for the end-of-life continuum of care. Kavod v’Nichum is the only organization of its kind for Chevra Kadisha groups in North America.

The group sponsors annual conferences aimed at overcoming hurdles to reclaiming Jewish death and burial traditions, such as recognizing the reality of death, teaching traditional practices at the end of life continuum, and developing ways to take back these mitzvot. The group was cited by the Jewish innovation guide, Slingshot, which recognizes innovative new programs for Jews.

Says Zinner: “It’s important to work at changing the culture in synagogues and communities so that people are reliant on each other, not on outside folks, to help with end-of-life issues. So when someone dies, we don’t call the funeral home first, we call the chaverim first. They step forward, call the family and do the arrangements. The family doesn’t have to go to the funeral home.  The family’s taken care of from that moment on through the whole process.”

Long active in the Reconstructionist movement, Zinner honed community-organizing skills after college as a VISTA volunteer in the mid-1970s organizing food co-operatives.  He got into Jewish death and burial issues in the mid-1990s, researching whether his Reconstructionist synagogue should buy a section at a a Maryland cemetery. He found the volunteer-run Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, and began doing taharot.

Zinner’s grandparents, immigrant Jews from Germany, were paid to perform taharot for Jewish funeral homes in St. Louis. What Zinner sees now is a re-awakening of interest in traditional practices with cadres of volunteers being trained to step up and perform the mitzvot. To that end, he has trained new community chevrot kadisha in more than 100 different locations over the last decade, including Boston in October, Cleveland last month and Montclair, NJ, when he visits Bnai Keshet this month.

At Kavod v’Nichum’s 2013 conference in Philadelphia early last June, Zinner called on chevrot at area synagogues to organize and negotiate better rates with funeral homes. He will discuss such strategies during his December 6-8 weekend at Bnai Keshet. For a schedule of the weekend’s activities or more information on Kavod v’Nichum, visit www.bnaikeshet.org or www.jewish-funerals.org

Sax-Bolder is a student in the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Program and resides in Westchester County, NY with her husband and two daughters; she works as a speech and language pathologist and a Jewish spiritual director, and integrates her background in Jewish chanting, art, meditation, yoga and movement into praying, teaching and performing rituals.

Schedule of sessions December 6-8:

Scholar-in-Residence: Welcome David  Zinner Dinner,  Friday, December 6, 6:00-7:15pm, at Bnai Keshet.  Zinner presents clergy and lay leaders an overview of Chevra Kadisha training, the process of modeling, demonstrating and practicing the skills needed to sustain an active, vibrant caring community.

Kabbalat Shabbat Service, 7:30-8:30pm.  Spirited service opens with an introductory drash on the history of the Chevra Kadisha movement across denominations.  Open to all.

Chanting with Beth Sandweiss and Melissa Shaffer, Saturday, December 7, 9-10 am. BK members Sandweiss and Shaffer focus on chants incorporated into end-of-life activities by Rabbi Shefa Gold and incorporated in the tahara manual, To Midwife a Soul, by Rick Light.

Beit Midrash Guest Teacher: Scholar-in-Residence David Zinner, Saturday, December 7, 9-12:00pm.  Zinner will talk  to religious school students about the historical and textual basis of Jewish practices around death, caring for the deceased and the bereaved.

Lunch and Learn: David Zinner , Saturday December 7, 1:00-3:00pm .  Zinner presents textual basis for Jewish end-of-life protocols, focusing on Vezot habrecha, (death of Moses), and Rabban Gamliel in Moed Katan, (simple funerals).

Chanting with Eva Sax-Bolder, Saturday, December 6, 4:30-5:30pm.  Sax-Bolder, a rabbinic student and member of Bnai Jeshurun’s Chevra Kadisha, will do a chanting workshop focusing on chants she incorporates into end-of-life activities.

Potluck Dinner & Strategy Session, Saturday, December 7, 7:30-10pm.  Zinner and synagogue leaders debate big-picture issues: should BK’s  Chevra Kadisha serve the larger community, including unaffiliated Jews, or just congregation-only;  should BK offer burial package to congregants;  should BK pay a nominal sum for designated space in green cemetery-to-be at Genesis Farm in Blairstown.

Chevra Kadisha Training, Session One, Sunday December 8, 9-12:00pm. To start this two-part session, from 9:00-10:45pm, David Zinner gives an introduction to training, with an emphasis on the significance of Chevra Kadisha work and the spiritual uplift participants derive from doing it; participants share why they’re there. Break: 10:45-11:00am At 11:00-12:00pm, after a 15-minute break,  Zinner gives an overview of tahara liturgy.

Lunch, Sunday December 8, 12:00-1:00pm.

Chevra Kadisha Training, Session Two, Sunday December 8, 1:00-4:00pm. Zinner and Sax-Bolder lead a “live” tahara training demonstration that will detail how a Chevra team prepares a Jewish deceased for burial.  Participants will divide into two groups: those interested in performing tahara and those who’d rather do something else: shmira, logistical issues, funeral homes, cemetery options and green burials.  Participants interested in tahara talk about complications that can arise, and other issues: cremation, transgender, autopsy, organ donation.  At 3:30pm, participants will reunite for reports, a short Q&A period and a wrap-up.

Dinner, Sunday December 8, 5:00-6:00pm.

Funeral Home Visits, 6:30-10:00 pm.  Zinner brings a checklist of compliance requirements he has developed to Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton, Prout Funeral Home in Verona and possibly J.L. Apter Jewish Memorial Chapel in Cedar Grove.

Bnai Keshet (www.bnaikeshet.org) is a Reconstructionist synagogue serving the Greater Essex area. The synagogue is located at 99 So. Fullerton, Montclair. More information is available at 973-746-4889; bnaikeshet@bnaikeshet.org