Chevrah First Steps
Establishing a Management Team
Organizing a Chevrah Kadisha is like starting any new venture. The purpose and structure should flow from the philosophy, needs, and style of the people who will participate in it and the community it will serve. A Chevrah Kadisha is most likely to succeed when its creation coincides with a deeply felt desire in a community and when it builds upon organizational systems that are already in place and functioning effectively. However, lofty talk about philosophy and meeting communal needs will not change the fact that a new project often depends on a single organizer or a small group of organizers to get started.
Thus, the first step is to identify the prime movers behind this organizing effort. If you are establishing a chevrah within a synagogue, the team members will all be from that synagogue community, preferably in leadership roles there. If you are establishing a community-wide chevrah, your team members will include representatives from each of the synagogues and communities within the larger community you will serve. It is most effective to involve people who are already engaged and supporting the community in other ways — people who are known and respected by the community you will be serving.
Consider having the following organizational coordinators on your motivational team, or at least a combined team that can provide these functions:
- An overall Chevrah Kadisha coordinator: Makes sure that all task leaders and administrative coordinators know and do their job
- A recruiter: Searches out potential new members and encourages their participation in the chevrah.
- An education/training coordinator: Provides skills training for chevrah members and educational opportunities for the congregation or the community at large
- An administrator: Handles finances, insurance, and contracts
- A funeral home liaison: Coordinates taharah space, shmirah space, supplies, building access, etc.
- A publicity coordinator: Creates brochures, web pages, press releases, newsletter articles, and other materials about the Chevrah Kadisha to attract new members and to acquaint the community with the full range of services the Chevrah Kadisha provides
The chevrah leadership should have the skills to do the various tasks you need to motivate the members. These skills include being able to do simple and small tasks as well as larger tasks. Not everyone will be the home run hitters, yet everyone can help.
The chevrah members’ abilities and skills might include:
- Having relationships with leaders in the community and understanding these leaders’ abilities and communities
- Publicity and fund-raising
- Creating effective training aids
- Knowing computers and clear communication
- People skills, teaching skills, organizational skills
- Financial management
- Medical professionals
- Teamwork and negotiation
For more information or immediate guidance, call us at 410-733-3700.
Rabbis and other clergy are invaluable resources for the chevrah, so it is important to gain their support and to include and involve them from the start. Many rabbis have no direct experience with Chevrah Kadisha, but are familiar with the role the chevrah can play in the community. Others are fully involved and even members of chevrot, and can use their personal experience to support the chevrah’s work. Most clergy are happy to have community members run the chevrah, while the rabbi has a supporting role.
Clergy are essential to the establishment of the chevrah by supporting the chevrah from the bima, drashot, educational programs, and personal relationships.
Meet with the rabbi or clergy or group of rabbis to discuss how the chevrah will fit into the community and to clearly define expectations. Educate clergy in the details of chevrah work, its power and beauty, and the rituals involved. Make them aware of modern taharah manuals that could be used. Give them books so they can educate themselves in addition to becoming inspired by speaking with you. The award-winning book, Jewish Rites of Death, Stories of Beauty and Transformation, by Richard A. Light, explains the profound impact of doing taharah, while A Plain Pine Box, by Rabbi Arnold Goodman, explains the scope of this work and development strategies. Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness (3rd Ed.), by Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Dan Fendel, is a taharah manual and commentary on the underlying meaning of the liturgy recited during the ritual, and To Midwife A Soul, by Richard A. Light, is a taharah manual with chanting by Rabbi Shefa Gold designed for ease of use in the taharah room.
Having clergy participate as members of the chevrah can be very influential and powerful for the community. However, don’t be discouraged if they decline the invitation; often their plates are simply too full.
Organizing for Self-Perpetuation
The next step is to define clearly who the chevrah will be serving. What is the community for whom the chevrah is being created? This might be the membership of a synagogue, or it could be the entire Jewish population of a specific geographical area, or any combination you might imagine. Since many decisions that follow will be based upon this demographic, it is important that this definition be made right up front and communicated clearly to everyone involved.
Once established, the ideal chevrah should be there to serve the community for many generations to come. This means it must be organized from the outset to be self-perpetuating and not dependent upon any specific individual or group. Be prepared to establish an organization that is not reliant on anyone and can function well when people are out of town or otherwise unable to participate, when a new rabbi takes the lead of the synagogue, or when unexpected circumstances arrive.
At the core of this fundamental effort are some decisions that establish the scope and extent of the work of the chevrah. Every community must decide the scope of activities in which the chevrah will operate. Historically, as shown in the Prague Placards (paintings from the 1700’s depicting the activities of the Chevrah Kadisha), the scope can include the full continuum of care from visiting the sick all the way through death, burial, and mourning. Some communities only support the period between death and burial, others extend this to include a wider range of activities. To give you perspective on this, in 2018, Congregation Ohr Kodesh (in Maryland) held a Chesed Best Practices Forum that included 12 congregations from DC and Maryland. They created a document listing how each congregation participated in the continuum of care. This document is a result of their important inquiry and gives an overview of how these needs are being addressed. As you can see, some communities offer a full spectrum of support while other communities do not provide a full range of services.
If you need help with how to approach this continuum of care and where and how to participate, Kavod v’Nichum can provide a mentor to support you as you face these challenges.
Here are some sample decisions that need to be made:
- Should the Chevrah Kadisha do taharah? For some, the obvious answer is yes. After all, taharah is the core of Jewish rituals concerning death. Taharah is not done by immediate family members, out of concern for their and the chevrah’s emotional well-being. The ritual of taharah has a clearly defined liturgy and set of practical and spiritual tasks. Taharah often has a great spiritual and emotional impact on those performing it, as well as on the family whose loved one has received the taharah. Yet providing a men’s and women’s taharah team can also be challenging to organize and difficult to sustain. Recruiting members to participate in taharah can sometimes be difficult because of the anxiety it evokes. If the congregation has not been sufficiently educated about taharah, there may be little demand and the taharah group will atrophy. If the chevrah decides to do taharah, review a number of available taharah manuals and choose one upon which to base your local minhagim (customs). Kavod v’Nichum can help you find manuals.
- Should the Chevrah Kadisha provide shmirah? For some, this is perceived to be an easier entrée to Chevrah Kadisha activity than taharah because there is no physical contact with the deceased. On the other hand, mobilizing a sufficient number of volunteers to cover the period between the time of death and the burial can be a formidable administrative task, especially if the burial is delayed.
- Should the Chevrah Kadisha live under the synagogue umbrella or should it be a separate organization? This is a question of how the Chevrah Kadisha sees itself as well as a legal question. Are the goals of the Chevrah Kadisha and synagogue leaders in sync? Does the Chevrah Kadisha want to reach out to other synagogues? Should it be a community-wide organization that serves all?
These decisions will inform the policies that guide and regulate the work of the chevrah. New opportunities and challenges will also arise.
Part of chevrah and taharah leadership is making decisions. There are practical questions that arise in the taharah room, and there are policy decisions about how the chevrah will operate, what standards they will adhere to, and how they will deal with the public.
Policies may address any number of possible circumstances: here are a few questions that are commonly considered in chevrah policy manuals:
- Who may perform taharah?
- For whom taharah will be performed?
- Under what circumstances taharah will be done (eg., pre-cremation)?
- What liturgy will be used?
- Which tachrichim and casket will be used?
- How are unusual circumstances to be handled (e.g., requests from family members, transgender deceased)?
From a management viewpoint, how will the group sustain itself?
There are many factors involved in policy development or in changing existing policy. Existing chevrot, clergy, synagogues, cemetery operators and funeral homes may have a stake in the process. Navigating each relationship brings unique challenges.
You can get ideas from the policy manuals of other chevrot and then decide how your chevrah will function. Here is a comparison chart of two such manuals. Remember that policies can change over time — they are not cast in concrete. But having a written policy manual is important because the chevrah members will need something that sets boundaries and gives guidance when challenges arrive. Kavod v’Nichum can help you find policy manuals, and to get you started, here is an example manual published in 2019 by the Peninsula Masorati Chevra Kadisha.
A chevrah can function as a part of the synagogue budget. The chevrah might need to do independent fundraising. Some chevrot charge for doing taharot, some do not. Those who charge will sometimes work with the funeral home to reduce the cost of the funeral because they are doing part of the work of the funeral director (e.g., sanitary care). Other groups charge when there is more than one chevrah in town, so that people will not choose one chevrah over another based on cost.
The chevrot that charge will typically use their income either to make charitable donations, conduct educational programs, send members to Chevrah Kadisha conferences, pay for them to attend educational programs and courses (such as Gamliel Institute programs), or to actually pay members for performing taharah. Expenses such as supplies and tachrichim are often covered by the funeral home, but if not, this is another expense for the chevrah.
Working with Funeral Homes
There are two very different relationships that Chevrot Kadisha may have with funeral homes and cemeteries. The first is where the funeral home or cemetery provides a space for taharah and shmirah. The second is where the funeral home has an agreement to provide a traditional Jewish funeral and possibly also has a guaranteed price for its services. Developing an agreement with a funeral home is a complex process and too involved for detailed discussion here. Please contact Kavod v’Nichum for more information or to discuss specific situations.
In the first situation, a chevrah may provide taharah and shmirah at a single funeral home or possibly at any funeral home chosen by the family. This is a mutually dependent relationship, because both the funeral home and the Chevrah Kadisha want to assure the family that taharah and shmirah can be provided. The funeral home relationship is important because the funeral home furnishes the space and facilities where the taharah and shmirah are performed, and often provides — or orders — the necessary supplies for taharah.
In the same way, a chevrah may be asked to provide services at a Jewish, civil, military, or non-Jewish cemetery. In these cases, the chevrah’s work may include assisting pall bearers, lowering the casket, helping form shurot (parallel lines), or coordinating the filling of the grave. Some chevrot will respond to any call. Others will only work in certain cemeteries.
The relationship between a chevrah and local funeral homes and cemeteries may be along a continuum from a familiar facility that has traditionally served the Jewish community to a facility that has no experience with the Jewish community. It is important for the chevrah to identify the funeral homes and cemeteries that families are likely to choose, and work with them to develop clear understanding of their roles.
A complicating factor in the work of the Chevrah Kadisha is out of town deaths and burials. In these situations, the chevrah often will have to work with funeral homes, cemeteries, and other Chevrah Kadisha groups who are unknown to them. Funeral homes may take the lead in this coordination, but chevrah will often get involved when there are questions of where the taharah should be done or how to coordinate shipping a body within the country or to Israel.
In communities that have large Jewish populations, a Chevrah Kadisha will often work closely with more than one funeral home or cemetery. When funeral home or cemetery ownership and management go through significant changes, the Chevrah Kadisha is faced with the necessity of re-establishing relationships. Most consumers are not concerned with changes in ownership or management, and don’t even think about them unless they are facing immediate personal funeral needs. However, there may be instances when a community does feel a connection to a particular owner, for instance, if the same family owned and operated the funeral home for many years or even generations.
If the Chevrah Kadisha is successful in establishing a relationship with the new owners, this can give the community a sense of reassurance and continuity. However, in some instances, renewing the relationship may prove untenable and the Chevrah Kadisha may decide to seek a new partner.
Where there are multiple facilities in a community, the experience of developing a relationship may be simple and straightforward with one but problematic and challenging with another. A funeral home whose philosophy and practices are compatible with those of the Chevrah Kadisha is often the easiest, most logical place to start. The chevrah can then move on to forging relationships with more challenging funeral homes once it has gained experience and acquired confidence. Where there is only one funeral home or cemetery in a community, it is all the more important for the Chevrah Kadisha to cultivate a good working relationship with them.
It is important to understand the functions of the funeral home and cemetery and their predispositions and motivations. Effective collaboration only becomes possible when both parties trust each other and feel that they will benefit. Learn the issues and ways the needs of both organizations can be addressed in order to build and maintain a productive working relationship. Sometimes, this process will proceed quickly and smoothly. Other times, finding and connecting with the right funeral home and/or cemetery with whom to partner may prove arduous and require great diplomacy and flexibility.
Some chevrot have to provide their own taharah supplies, while others depend on the local funeral home to provide them. Often it’s a combination of the two. To get an idea of what supplies are necessary and who generally provides them, see the Taharah Supplies page.