Kavod v'Nichum and Gamliel Institute provide resources, education, and training along the Jewish end-of-life continuum: from visiting the sick and pre-planning, to care for the body after death, to providing comfort to the mourners.
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Inspire, then Educate

Inspiring People to Join the Chevrah Kadisha

To inspire others we need to be passionate, along with authentic and well informed. When we share our knowledge and wisdom with authentic personal passion, we motivate others through the emotional power of our passion. Our authenticity gives credence to our emotions, and these in turn, inspire, uplift, educate, and lead others.

We have a high hurdle to leap when we teach about death. Our Western society trains us to avoid real death discussion. For many, this may the first time they wrestle with the subject.

It then becomes even more important to bring passion to our work, to shake up the status quo, to change the nature of the discussion, to break out of old ways of thinking.

Passionate teaching includes the ability to lose, or dampen down, our inhibitions and to express enthusiasm, excitement, and exhilaration about our subject. That’s right, we have to talk about death with passion!

Sharing of personal stories can be very effective as a means to express your passion and enthusiasm. You can also find some element of chevrah work that is especially moving to you and share that aspect, filled with your enthusiasm. For example, one of the Gamliel Institute instructors is well known for sharing his passion for “midwifing souls between realms” as the basis for his involvement in chevrah. Find yours. Share it. Make it a beacon for others!

Practically speaking, it is community education that sets the format for this kind of sharing. But you can also do it one-on-one, with every member of the community you meet.

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Chevrah Member Education: First Steps

In designing any educational program, it is useful to think in terms of several key elements: the target audience, the content to be taught, and the venues and techniques that will best convey that content to the target audience.

A Chevrah Kadisha educational program has three distinct target audiences: community, volunteer, and teacher/organizer. Each succeeding audience level involves increasing degrees of learning and assumed responsibilities, and serves as a foundation and impetus for the next level. Each has a slightly different focus, but with goals that are clearly interrelated:

  1. Building the community’s awareness and appreciation of the wisdom and beauty of the traditional Jewish response to death, the community’s responsibility to respond to its members in times of need, and the rich heritage of the Chevrah Kadisha.
  2. Educating volunteers about the sacred tasks of the Chevrah Kadisha and conveying to them the historical and spiritual significance of these practices.
  3. Providing the teacher/organizer with a knowledge base of the history and evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha, its practices and their derivations, variations that exist, the issues that a Chevrah Kadisha is likely to encounter, and how those issues have been addressed in other communities.

Learning about death and related topics is different from other forms of learning. Death is a topic we have been taught to avoid and it is often emotionally charged, yet it is also spiritually moving and profoundly enriching, both for the individual and the community. The content of a Chevrah Kadisha educational program includes not only learning a very rich body of traditional Jewish knowledge, but also involves an intense level of spiritual, emotional, psychological, and practical involvement in death and dying work. More advanced learners will also grapple with issues of community organizing and working with volunteers.

In developing a Chevrah Kadisha educational program, it is advisable to first become acquainted with some of the important source materials in this area. The materials and resources that will be of interest to the general community, the Chevrah Kadisha volunteer, and the organizer, overlap at many points.

Conveying the content of an educational program to the target audience can involve a variety of venues and techniques, including formal classroom education, workshops, newsletter articles, reading, hands-on training, pulpit drashot, and informal discussions. Combining several methodologies and venues can be an effective strategy for reaching the greatest number of congregants.

When planning an educational program, it is also important to keep in mind the desired balance between study and practice. Some communities want to begin by taking on the functions of the Chevrah Kadisha fairly quickly, doing the best they can at each stage as their learning deepens. Others proceed with a slower, systematic course of study before they feel ready to translate scholarship into action.

For more information or for help focusing your educational programs, don’t hesitate to contact Kavod v’Nichum.

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Training Taharah Leaders

Teaching others to be good leaders during the performance of taharah can be very rewarding, and sometimes challenging as well. This is an important task and one that should not be taken lightly. The leaders of a Chevrah Kadisha, or of a specific taharah, are called rosh or roshah (male or female; the plural is roshim). Such leaders should be knowledgeable about the elements of taharah as written in modern taharah manuals, and experienced as a team member during taharah. In addition, the following gives you an idea of the important elements of this task.

The Leader’s Job

One of the primary jobs of the rosh/roshah is to lead the taharah ritual. They also should exemplify the essence of kavanah that permeates and saturates all aspects of this holy ritual. The leaders are the teachers for new members, mentors for the entire team, along with the container for the emotional power that envelops team members during and after this rich experience. The leaders not only guide the ritual, but set the tone, ensure safety, and allow and promote growth of the team and the community as a whole throughout this event.

In some communities, it is the roshim who are responsible for community education about all Jewish death practices, along with the management and health of the Chevrah Kadisha itself, both inside and outside of the taharah room.

The tasks of the leader include but are not limited to the following for each taharah:

    • Arrange and schedule the ritual itself
      • Set the date and time of the taharah
      • Communicate this to appropriate people involved
      • Assemble the taharah team
  • Organize and direct all activities during the ritual
    • Assign tasks and coordinate who does what when
    • Make decisions as needed
    • Ensure the safety and health of the team members
      • Physical health and safety in the taharah room
      • Emotional health before, during, and after the ritual
    • Ensure taharah supplies get replenished as needed afterwards
  • Interface with others connected with the ritual, including:
    • Funeral home personnel
    • Family members of the deceased when necessary (but with care to preserve the anonymity of those who participated in the taharah)
    • Rabbis or other synagogue personnel
  • Other activities of the chevrah leadership go beyond an individual taharah. Leaders should:
  • Meet periodically with team members, other roshim, funeral home directors, and community leaders as needed
  • Schedule team trainings as necessary
  • Schedule (and often lead) community educational events

Characteristics of a Good Leader

The rosh/roshah needs to lead effectively, with sensitivity, and to create and hold the sacred space for the team. There are many factors that make a good leader. Effective leader characteristics might include:

    • Honesty: Your relationship with your team should be open and sensitive to the needs of each member. A rosh/roshah should carry themselves as an example of how others should conduct themselves throughout the taharah process.
    • Delegation: A leader cannot do it all and must learn to delegate tasks based on experience and what other team members are comfortable doing — reading liturgy, washing, readying the casket and tachrichim, etc. Develop a division of labor within the team but also rotate the group so everyone develops experience in all tasks.
    • Communication: Be clear about the task(s) at hand, making sure your team knows their roles, knows about potential problems beforehand. These clarifications will ensure that the taharah runs smoothly. Being a clear communicator is also essential in recruiting and training new and potential members of the Chevrah Kadisha.
    • Confidence: The experience of a rosh/roshah can be a source of strength for the rest of the group if an unexpected situation arise. Remaining calm can be an invaluable source of support to others. Also, be available to discuss questions team members might have throughout the taharah process. Be present and prepared to assist others in processing difficult situations.
    • Commitment: This can be very difficult work and being a leader shouldn’t stop one from being with and actively participating with the rest of team. It’s a way of gaining respect and a way of leading by example.
    • Positive attitude: Performing a taharah is a mitzvah, not a chore. Leave personality issues and negative attitudes outside the taharah room. If that can’t be done, the rosh/roshah may have to make changes to the make-up of the team to maintain a respectful and cooperative process.
    • Flexibility: Sometimes decisions are not so clear cut. Sometimes your team will encounter situations that call for a decision outside the scope of a simple or ‘normal’ taharah. Where something is unclear be prepared to seek assistance (halachic or otherwise) if appropriate. Otherwise use your best judgement when making decisions on the fly. The team will look to the rosh/roshah for guidance and, in turn, you can seek their input for guidance. Such situations will instill confidence in everyone.
    • Inspiration: A rosh/roshah should make everyone on the team feel invested in the taharah process and feel a commitment to doing the very best they can under what can sometimes be very difficult situations. Recognize when members need a break and let them take it. It’s the role of the leader to keep spirits and morale up.
    • Approach: Not everyone on your team is the same. There will be varying levels of experience, ability to work under pressure, religious beliefs, etc. A rosh/roshah will have to learn about all of their team members and treat each of them accordingly.

And these:

  • Being knowledgeable: A rosh/roshah should have deep understanding of the procedures to be done, why they are done, how they are done, and the role of minhag in all that is done, along with a clear perception of modifications that might be necessary under unusual circumstances
  • Holding the big picture in focus in a challenging environment, often with changing and conflicting demands
  • Asking advice
  • Making a clear choice when necessary
  • Communicating the decision
  • Recognizing choices: clear understanding of issues and alternatives, priorities, and the team skills
  • Handling complex tasks; ability to break larger tasks into smaller steps
  • Using common sense when making decisions
  • Executing duties in respectful ways
    • Respect for team members
    • Respect for the deceased
    • Respect for the family of the deceased
    • Respect for the funeral home personnel
    • Respect for synagogue personnel
    • Respect for the holiness of this job
  • Allowing other team members to express opinions appropriately; creating openings for others
  • Asking for help: specifically asking others to lead when necessary (or even pre-arranging to co-lead when needed)
  • Having a “strong soft voice:” the most effective leading of peers is clear guidance. The leader’s mind should have the following attributes:
    • Calm
    • Focused
    • Organized
    • In-charge
    • Respectful
    • Soft-spoken
    • Decisive
    • Humble
    • Efficient
    • Tactful

The Leader’s Decision Criteria

To be effective, the leader must impose priorities when making decisions. In most circumstances, the order below is appropriate, and there are also circumstances in which this order might be changed. So leaders must be clear in their own minds as to why they are doing this work. The leader must often balance conflicting demands. To handle these, always keep in mind why you are doing this, the holy nature of the soul of the deceased, and that every human being contains that same holiness. These considerations must always underlie decisions as they are made. This priority order is common:

  1. Safety of the Chevrah Kadisha team
  2. Showing honor and respect for the dead (kavod hameit)
  3. Showing honor and respect to the deceased’s family
  4. Jewish traditions and minhagim
  5. Funeral home desires and practices

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Training Chevrah Members

Shmirah Training

Teaching someone how to sit shmirah is more about helping them understand what they are doing, than a “how-to” explanation. Then it is simply being open to allow one’s self to be present, fully.

Shmirah is the guarding of a person’s body after they die. In some ways, it can be likened to that of being an honor guard. Shmirah is traditionally done from the time of death until the time of burial. In some communities, shmirah does not begin until after the taharah.

In general, both a male (called a shomer) and a female (shomeret) may perform shmirah for anyone, although some communities have other policies.

Those who do shmirah are not the traditionally defined mourners. Sometimes they’re grandchildren, sometimes they’re volunteers, sometimes friends, sometimes students. In some communities, teens are matched with adults; in others non-Jews do shmirah with Jews. It can be a good way for out-of-town relatives to reconnect to the deceased and the funeral process.

Shmirah has a ripple effect beyond the deceased. Knowing that a community representative is there with their loved one brings comfort to the family. The community, which wants to help but is not quite sure what to do, becomes engaged in a task that provides this comfort.

Finally, the activity of a shomer can have a profound effect on the shomer. Time spent in meditation or quiet reading of psalms is often a welcome break from our overloaded lives. No distractions, televisions, cell phones or pagers allows us to focus on the life lost and to reflect on our own lives.

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Taharah Training

The simplest way to train for taharah is by simply participating in the ritual under the guidance of a rosh/roshah. One can, in advance, read the taharah manual, discuss it with an experienced taharah leader, and then do the “on the job” training. However, there are more comprehensive ways to do this in classroom settings, workshops, and conferences.

Certainly, the traditional method of conveying taharah knowledge was OJT, “on the job” training. Apprentices were brought into the taharah room, given oral instructions, and learned by watching and doing.

Today, we have printed manuals, which give step-by-step procedures, along with the liturgy. Some include commentary and other additions, such as videos, DVDs, and web sites. Yet as new Chevrah Kadisha groups are formed, we retain much of the tradition of incorporating “on the job” taharah as a key part of our education and training.

Resources for conveying the oral tradition of the Chevrah Kadisha include not only congregants and clergy with taharah experience, but also congregants whose parents or grandparents were members of a Chevrah Kadisha. In these instances, members can share the stories that were passed down to them, and may even invite relatives to share their knowledge and skills with the community.

Kavod v’Nichum, and its educational and leadership training arm, the Gamliel Institute, can be valuable resources by providing local trainings and semester-long courses. Kavod has specific training materials to help chevrot in training members in the art of the performance of taharah. For example, click to download this PowerPoint presentation, prepared specifically for training teams in the art of performing taharah. Feel free to contact us for information regarding local trainings, mentoring or materials to help with taharah training.

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Establishing Activation Mechanisms for Taharah and Shmirah

Once your chevrah is established and members are trained, you need some means by which you can contact members to let them know their services are needed. This is true for both shmirah and taharah events. Some communities simply use the telephone to call a list when needed. Others use email lists. Still others have web calendars or other online tools that allow them to handle the scheduling aspects of not only contacting people but also arranging who is to show up when and where. It works best if you appoint a specific person to be the champion for this task to make sure it happens effectively and appropriately.

The Austin, Texas Jewish Community has created Austin Shmirah, a coalition of local congregations that provides shomrim on a community-wide basis. They have developed an online tool for scheduling. Watch their website for its development and release to the public.

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What’s Next

Running a chevrah is a continuous flow of growth and learning in the midst of service and sharing. We highly recommend that you network with other chevrot throughout North America, to share what you have learned, what you are facing, and to learn from their extensive experience, along with the benefit of meeting new friends and colleagues. One of the easiest ways to do that is to attend one of the annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conferences sponsored by Kavod v’Nichum. For more information about these amazing events, see Conferences.

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