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Home  »  We Do The Best We Can – Part 2

“We Do The Best We Can” – Part 2




Research methods

As I planned my research for this project I was presented with an opportunity within a conundrum. The only information detailed in print about contemporary Hevra Kadisha groups was in several academic theses and several magazine articles. I wanted to go beyond that limitation and directly interview people who were involved in this work in an attempt to develop a greater understanding of both their motivation and actual practices. I speculated that the personal and political circumstances surrounding these individuals and these groups would be indicative of some of the challenges facing Jews today in North America. I decided that a qualitative approach would best give an accurate voice to the participants. It has been suggested that qualitative research provides a new direction for academic research, that researching the context and particulars of actual lived experiences more accurately broadens our knowledge base (Kirby and McKenna, 1989, p.22). I felt that interviews would give me the kind and amount of detail otherwise unavailable, and would solidly substantiate my findings in the literature that did exist.

Story, as biographical narrative, allows different understandings of meaning to gradually emerge within the context of the research problem (Richardson, cited in Dewar, 1996). Telling our story (ies) within a larger narrative setting encourages and assists us as we attempt to understand our lives as coherent, yet with particular and discrete meanings. By stitching the personal stories of Hevra Kadisha members to the underlining of their customs and practices, I hoped their insights would act to bind the seams of the narrative, adhering the personal to the communal. Thus, in a manner both reflexive and reflective, the threads of the narrative inter-weave within the context of personal story. Inevitably many questions remain, threads dangling, as do the unfinished, fraying edges of the takhrikhim.  Yet even these threads are quilted to the fabric of Jewish community in complex and timeless patterns.

The conventions of much traditional academic writing demands the engagement of the researcher to be transformed into detachment, into an objective, externalized voice. Academic researchers are trained to be observers, objectively distant from their area of research, certainly not active participants in their research. It has been suggested though, that as a result, “a kind of paralysis” has set within the halls of academe (Mies, cited in Kirby and McKenna, 1989, p.25). However useful such an observer’s only stance may be in some areas of scientific study, I made the decision that such impartiality was not appropriate or desirable. As a member of a Hevra Kadisha I am very committed to the ideals and the actuality of these ritual practices. Far from being a dispassionate observer, I am very actively engaged and concerned for the future of these rituals. I believe this passion has enabled me to enter this research not with bias but with a more complete sensitivity and understanding of the nuances embedded in the interview material.

My decision to personally interview each participant was made with these factors in mind. Face-to-face interviews would confine my research to a very small locale, whereas telephone interviews opened up potential interviews in any location. While lacking the potential for more immediate visual cues and rapport, these interviews did give both me as interviewer and the interviewees ample opportunity to clarify and verify information. These interviews also gave me the opportunity to encourage interviewees to elaborate more fully with their responses. The nature of our mutual passion for this topic did in fact create a rapport that greatly enhanced the interviews. All of these factors are considered significant in face-to-face interviewing and I think were successfully adapted to a more long-distance interview relationship (Palys, 1997, p.154). One of my obligations as a researcher is to also be sensitive to what is not said – examining the silences in the text, speculating what may lie in the margins. I become the core. The words are sometimes diffuse and painterly, sometimes intensely focused. As I worked I realized how many more questions I could have asked and how this work is very much a beginning point.

It is very important to me that my research leads to greater understanding about the function and practice of these rituals. Theory and practice are often segregated in academic research, (Mies, cited in Kirby and McKenna, 1989, p.25). This attitude is usually based in the quest for ‘scientific objectivity.’ Theoretical research is often posited against more qualitative, action based research, reflecting perhaps another commonly held distinction, that between what constitutes art and what is mere craft. One form is idealized as having a higher social and symbolic value while the other, more pragmatic and functional, is less valued. However, rather than oppose one value against the other I am hoping through my research methods to validate both the theoretical and the pragmatic. As I talked with participants I learned from each person’s experiences. Many people expressed their own passionate interest in taharah, and their frustration with lack of materials to read. They wanted to discuss the source of customs, what other communities were doing, whether other groups existed. Although all the participants have some form of manual or guide they use when conducting a taharah, many said they would appreciate having an improved guide. To this end, one of the practical outcomes of my research is my proposal to publish such a manual. It is my hope that this manual will actively contribute towards greater understanding about taharah and its role within our communities.

Data Gathering Tools: Interviews

My initial plan was to survey Hevra Kadisha members by e-mail. However I was very concerned that my e-mails would be ignored, not passed on to the correct people or might end up lost.  I decided that telephone conversations would be more workable and more reliable. They would ensure that the interviews would be completed. Phone conversations also allowed participants to expand beyond the yes/no format of the questions into the stories behind the questions, which added tremendous richness and depth to my survey. My experience with interviewing local participants made me realize that these stories were fundamental to the success of this research. I tried to develop questions that would address major areas of practical concern. Membership, training, safety, actual procedures used during a taharah, who, if anyone, was consulted and personal reasons for doing this work were all covered in the questions. (See Appendix C-1).

It has been suggested that successful interviews usually involve those who are interviewed entering into a relationship with the interviewer (Kirby and McKenna, 1989, p.70). My experience interviewing the participants was that this relationship quite naturally evolved from our shared concern for this work. I found myself wanting to sit with women in their sewing circle as they hand-stitched takhrikhim, as they had for over forty years; I wanted to meet the members of the Hevra who had first taught their rabbi about their work and now were learning with him; I wanted to spend time with a community of elders, a community where Maritimer’s common sense [20] met Jewish takhlis, (the practical substance of a matter) and together created a solid sustained commitment to their local Jewish customs. We shared our concerns and our hopes for this much-loved mitzvah. My obligation to those interviewed is to try to honestly reflect back their experiences and their passion.

My research plan called for interviewing Conservative Jews in small synagogues. In August 2000 I drew up interview questions and then interviewed members of my Hevra Kadisha affiliated with Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria. These interviews provided me with an opportunity to workshop and refine the questions I had generated. I had traveled to New York in May 2000 to begin my research into the literature, and in September I returned and spent three weeks researching at the

Jewish Theological Seminary and the New York Public Library. While in New York I interviewed members of several Manhattan Hevra Kadisha groups. I had thought initially to compare the practices of larger more urban groups with groups in smaller communities. As I began to realize the challenge of completing such a task within the time I had available I decided to leave such a comparison to a later date.  Also, while in New York I managed to interview Rabbi Zohn, an expert on taharah.

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, is the Director and founder of the Hevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and is internationally recognized as one of the foremost experts in Hevra Kadisha. Rabbi Zohn is also the founder and coordinator of the Association of Hevros Kadisha; a national network designed to afford  exchange of current information and technical assistance regarding death and funeral practices (Zohn, 2001, n.p.). I also spoke with two funeral directors of Jewish funeral homes in Manhattan, Riverside and Plaza Memorial. One of these directors gave me a tour of the facility including the preparation room, where there was a mikvah for the taharah. Most commonly used by women who keep the laws of family purity, taharaht ha’mishpahah, this mikvah was used by the Hevra Kadisha for immersing the met/metah instead of pouring water over the body.

While in New York I also had a number of casual conversations with Jewish family members and friends who were interested in my research. None of them had ever heard of the ritual of taharah, and one, as I have mentioned, vociferously contradicted my suggestion that the rituals I was describing were traditionally Jewish.

In November, after completing my literature research, I began to interview members of Hevra Kadisha groups in small North American communities. I interviewed 16 individuals across Canada and the United States. The decision about which congregations to choose came about in a number of ways. I chose some of the communities from the United Synagogue Directory. I chose to contact synagogues that did not have a rabbi, or communities that to my knowledge were probably small. One interview came about through a contact on the Internet when I was researching kosher caskets. One interview was with a woman recommended by Rabbi Moshe Edelman. Rabbi Edelman is director of the department of leadership development and associate director of the department of regional and extension activities with United Synagogue offices in New York. Rabbi David Blumenfeld, also at United Synagogue, recommended one participant. One woman in Canada had heard through her sister in New York City that I was conducting this research. She contacted me through her sister, expressing her interest in being included. Even though participants were comfortable with my using their names in this publication, in the interest of discretion, I decided to give them pseudonyms (See Appendix D-1) for a list of all participants).

My first step in contacting individual participants involved telephoning their synagogue. Usually an office administrator spoke with me, who then suggested I speak with the rabbi, if there was a rabbi. After discussing my project with the rabbi I would then be referred by the rabbi to senior members of the Hevra Kadisha. Not all of my initial phone calls were successful. If there was an answering machine I left a message, explaining my project and leaving my phone number. Several people contacted me by e-mail explaining they did not know if they had a Hevra Kadisha. “I’m ignorant on what you are asking for- if our congregation has a Kedusha ” (private e-mail). One person had no idea about whom I could contact in this regard and expressed the opinion that only the Orthodox does this. Another individual made a suggestion about another synagogue that might have a Hevra Kadisha. Individuals whom I interviewed also made recommendations about others with whom I might speak.

The face-to-face interviews in Victoria were conducted in August 2000, and the telephone interviews were primarily conducted in November 2000. In the latter case I made an initial phone call to arrange with the rabbi or administrator to call the appropriate person. I then called the person to whom I had been referred to discuss my project and arrange for an interview, if they agreed to participate, and then called again for the appointed interview. When making arrangements for the interview I obtained participants’ informed consent. All participants asked for a copy of the manual that I plan to publish, and most asked for a copy of this thesis as well.

I had many more names than I could possibly include within the limitations of the time I had available. My idea (once I had decided to limit the interviews to small communities only) was to interview at least one man and one woman from at least 15 communities, but I soon realized that even that was an overestimation of my capacities within the scope of this particular survey. I was interested in creating as much breadth and depth of information as possible even within a smaller group, so I adjusted my expectations regarding both numbers of communities involved and numbers of participants within each community. Within four communities I interviewed both a man and a woman. In the other 9 communities I interviewed one person. I phoned participants from my home in Victoria. Most of the interviewees talked with me from their homes, except for one participant who was on holiday in Vancouver. As participants spoke to me on the phone, I wrote down extensive, near-verbatim notes. The interviews usually lasted one hour. Several of the participants were more taciturn and their interviews were shorter, others had much to say. One interview lasted two hours.

Study conduct: Managing the data

My first task in handling the data involved transcribing my hand-written notes. I entered all the interviews into a computer file without editing any of the comments. After the interviews were completely entered I created a list of themes that were pertinent to this study, and then proceeded to create computer files for each theme. I reviewed each interview and copied any information pertinent to each theme into their respective files. If several themes seemed complementary to me I would organize them side-by-side on the same page. I then stepped back from the minutiae of the data in all of these files and reviewed my questions. What was I trying to ascertain in this study? What questions formed the fundamentals of my literature review? These questions formed the analytical backdrop as I prepared to review the thematic breadth of material and began to develop an understanding of the threads of commonality and differences in these communities. I also shared this information at this stage with several people in my community, more for confirmation of direction, but also to confirm the richness and depth of the material that I was feeling was present. 

Much of the material in the interviews was relevant to several sections and was therefore included several times. On various sweeps through each interview I would also find references to themes that I had missed, and so I would go back to that section and the theme’s file and write in either the quote or the question number from the interview so that I could easily locate the relevant information. Themes also emerged in the interviews that I had not anticipated in the actual interview questions. Many participants discussed cemetery policy for example, as well as financial matters. Political issues such as relationships with other denominations in their community were also issues that many participants wanted to discuss. While interviewing these participants I did not attempt to overly restrict such conversation, because my feeling was that very relevant information would emerge in the context of such a discussion, a feeling that I believe has been verified. I also created a file of questions about customs and ritual about which individuals wanted information. As I was able to find information, I entered it into this file, which will eventually be a chapter in the manual. I have not used all the information, which was revealed to me in these interviews, some of the discussion being clearly beyond the confines of this paper.


Small communities:  “We do the best we can”

This phrase was repeated in a number of interviews, in fact it became a refrain, the litany of those living in small communities. There are problems facing the continuation of the Hevra Kadisha in many large Jewish communities as well. Large cities such as Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston generally have Jewish funeral homes, which have the advantage of providing Jews with a professional service. However this same service has also enabled an abdication of responsibility. As someone coming from a small town to the ‘big city’ to conduct my research, I thought I would be able to learn from my more cosmopolitan cousins. It would seem that the country mouse had something to teach its city cousin after all.

Demographic realities are an issue that some small communities are confronting. Some of these communities, once vibrant and active, are now aging, their membership dwindling. Dov clearly outlined the challenges for a Hevra Kadisha in such circumstances.

We are left with only 36 or 38 families. It was once a thriving community with maybe 250 families, but has been shrinking…Our numbers have depleted greatly, as has the size and frequency of attendance…the entire community is now less than 100 souls…There are six men and six women involved…I have great fear for the continuation of the Hevra Kadisha in the real small communities.

The average age in some of these congregations is pushing 70. Amos noted “we are top heavy with aging people.” The challenges of conducting a taharah require certain levels of physical strength. A number of participants voiced real concern about the survival of the Hevra Kadisha in light of a lack of able-bodied young people. Again Dov expressed his concern.  “I would say that when you are first asked it is usually because you are young and able bodied. Men get older, there is little strength left. We need to keep recruiting.” Unfortunately the experience of many in these small communities, is that not only are younger people leaving, few young families are moving in. Even families looking for a way of life they may attribute to a quality of life in smaller towns, may change their minds when they are confronted with its reality. Tzvi remembered one such family.

One family called me before Yom Tov, [the Jewish High Holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] they were looking for a small community. They wanted to know about Yiddishkeit in our community. But they walked into our shul [Yiddish: synagogue] and they see all gray hair, and no children. They had one small child. They left.

Even in synagogues with younger members there is worry that as the membership of the Hevra ages, the elders are not being replaced by younger people. There were concerns voiced that younger Jews are not as committed to a sense of communal obligation as their elders had been. While most senior members of a Hevra would drop whatever they were doing to take care of a taharah, Golda spoke of the reluctance of younger women to do the same.  “The younger ones I have talked with, the vast majority have excuses – she couldn’t get away from the office [to come to help].” Although a taharah usually takes only about one hour that hour may come at an inconvenient time for many. A willingness to re-arrange scheduled days is often necessary.

One woman was very concerned about this attitude. She talked about her son and his work with the Jewish Family Services in their town. She talked about the work they both do in their community, and described how her son was grateful to her for setting such an example. Shula’s pride in her son was palpable over the telephone, but so were her concerns. “Parents need to tell their children what they need to do in quiet ways. These days children are being raised without learning to give.” This act of hesed shel emet requires not only commitment and physical strength; it requires time, freely given. Shula was very concerned that too many younger people had not been given the example of such giving by their parents and, as a result, the foundations of community structures were beginning to show cracks.  Shlomo, a forty-year veteran in his Hevra Kadisha stoutly declared that “Volunteerism is on the way out.” Both Shula and Shlomo were concerned that the traditional volunteer nature of Hevra Kadisha groups was suffering.

These statements certainly need to be heard and acknowledged. In many Jewish communities a precious heritage of knowledge and practice of gemilut hasadim has already given way to paid, professional services. Gemilut hasadim translates as acts of benevolence, of kindness. Talmud compares tzedakah, which is righteousness and usually refers to the giving of financial assistance, with gemilut hasadim. Tzedakah only applies to the living, whereas gemilut hasadim also applies to the dead. Tzedakah involves giving of money, whereas gemilut hasadim involves giving of oneself (Sukkah 49b). Hesed shel emet, the caring of the dead, is an act of gemilut hasadim. These individuals were voicing a very real concern for the example being set for Jewish children and for the subsequent survival and continuing of this valued heritage.

Not all of these small synagogue communities were comprised of only elderly people, but age was often mentioned as a significant concern. Changing demographics in these communities may reflect wider social patterns. For example, today many elderly people travel frequently. Travel has become both more affordable and more necessary as sons and daughters move away from their home communities. Safer travel also affords many seniors opportunities for vacations that earlier generations would never have considered. These family trips and/or vacations present the Hevra Kadisha members remaining at home with the challenge to cover the absences of members who are away. Dov recognized the challenge that such absences created.

We’re all so mobile – half of our group is always away. It can be a real scramble, because you are always doing it quickly, you can never plan ahead. It has its problems. Sometimes we sort of wing it, in a community such as ours.

Given the nature of the training involved in a Hevra Kadisha, such a lack of stability can be problematic. Malka talked about understanding her membership in the Hevra Kadisha as being a lengthy process for her. She spoke of how she is still, after ten years, following the leadership of more experienced members. Even after ten years of membership she is still “searching out the meaning” of this work. Other participants also spoke of how it takes time to feel comfortable with the process. Members moving away from the community necessitate new members being brought in to replace them. This may be theoretically possible, but the fit may not always be as good. While recognizing that some women may have more of a ‘feel’ for this work Shula also realized that time is a factor in developing comfort as well as skill. “When the last two women moved, I had to bring in two other women. They are doing it because we asked, but they haven’t brought their personality into it yet, they are more perfunctory.” The inexperience and instability of newer members puts increased pressure on the older members who may want to pass on the torch. The erstwhile goal of a seamless taharah may seem ever elusive under such circumstances.

There are certainly many positive aspects to life in small communities. Several participants spoke about the love and sense of connection they were able to experience in such settings. Hannah described how the sense of neighborliness that may come with sheer physical proximity could permeate these rituals. She felt strongly that the Hevra Kadisha gave individuals within a community a forum to establish deeper connection with that community, “It has strengthened our bond, strengthening ourselves and strengthened others. There is a sense of love and caring for our elderly women.” The interplay between self and other, self and community is reinforced by the transformative potential of these rituals.

However, the strong personal and inter-personal relationships that may develop in these communities may also act to hinder possible participation. This may act as a negative challenge to those considering joining the Hevra Kadisha. Individuals may resist feeling emotionally unable to be involved. Rona’s close connection to her community was the core of her resistance at first. “When I was first invited, I said no, no, no, everyone in this town is related or close friends. I thought it would be very difficult.” However, as Rona reflected on her many years of membership, she, as did other participants, expressed that it was precisely these personal interconnections that encouraged her sense of obligation to this tradition.

Myre spoke about how his community had once had an active Hevra Kadisha but “they got old, and there was little interest in continuing with it.” His community had then depended on a nearby city’s Jewish funeral home where people were hired to do the taharah. But when it was decided to attempt to revive the Hevra Kadisha he went to observe a taharah at this home.  “I was appalled, they were sloppy, careless, they said no prayers. They weren’t as reverent as they might have been. I thought to myself, we have to do better than that.” This community was successful in reviving a Hevra Kadisha, something Amos thought could never happen. Amos was partly committed to being a member of his Hevra because of this concern.

It can very easily slip away. It is the one small thing I can do for the Jewish community. I don’t take it lightly. I’ve obligated myself to guarantee that tradition will be there, and the only way is through my participation. Without a doubt, when it ceases it’s impossible to start it up again, which is why we should continue. It is our obligation to not let it die out. It is becoming more and more fragile. If we have held on this long, we need to do our share. 

His impassioned commitment to the Hevra Kadisha is born of love for this mitzvah and a very real fear that it might disappear.

In other small communities this heritage is not only vibrantly alive but is growing, a testament to determination, love and perseverance. In one community of only fifty members ten percent are members of the Hevra Kadisha. While the men’s Hevra had remained stable for a number of years, Hannah told me the women’s group had a twenty-year gap before restarting. Their motivation for returning to this practice was the number of women in the community who were aging, and a recognition that they needed to face their responsibility to provide this ritual for these women as they died. 

It was clear to me that the individuals whom I was interviewing were usually more senior (membership in Hevra Kadisha and/or age) and had years of practical experience on which to reflect. Many represented a bridge between the practices of European immigrants and of those Jews who were two and three generations removed from immigration. The elders could speak Yiddish, the younger members rarely could. However, the possibility of these disparate groups working together and caring for each other might be more likely in small communities. Many participants reflected on their sense of being needed and of needing others to help sustain this tradition. This need was direct, palpable, and informed by the close social relationships in these communities. The lack of financial and professional resources in these communities demanded that acts of gemilut hasadim become a priority. Individuals described various motivations for involvement. Their personal awareness of the need within their community usually overcame any initial hesitations, fears and anxieties.

Modern realities impinged on these groups in a variety of ways. One participant discussed the terrible pollution in his geographic area, a factor contributing to the decline of the number of any persons interested in moving to his community. The growing population of well-educated Jews choosing professional careers rather than establishing small town businesses has also changed the demographic picture of small Jewish communities. Small towns offer limited opportunities for professional careers. As a result, many smaller communities are suffering their own version of ‘brain drain’. Jewish populations outside of large urban centers are also more likely to inter-marry.

According to the 1990 Jewish Population Survey Jews are a mobile population. Nearly half the population changed their residence in the past six years, and less than 10 percent of Jewish adults live in the same home as 25 years ago. Longer life expectancy, low fertility rates and diminished Jewish identification are all cited as factors in decreasing numbers of Jews in North America. “The future demographic development of North American Jewry will depend on the present generation’s ability to transmit a Jewish identity to the next,” concluded the demographers. “This will depend on ongoing patterns of marriage and child-rearing” (CUNY, 2001, n.p.).

Participants expressing their concern for the survival of the Hevra Kadisha also reflected their concern for the very survival of their Jewish communities. While Jews have historically gravitated to urban areas, the statistics today reflect even greater urban concentrations. In the United States the total Jewish population is described in terms of four census regions and four identity constructs. The greatest concentration of Jews described is in the Northeast while the Midwest has the smallest population. The largest segment of the population, comprising one-quarter of the total, is the category of Jews by religion, residing in the Northeast while a plurality of Jews with no religion is found in the West (CUNY, 2001, n.p.). Will Jewish communities survive in small communities? Perhaps there will be a shift in the present demographic patterns. Certainly my community has experienced an influx of people wanting to leave once-desirable larger urban centers in the interests of raising Jewish children in what is perceived to be a safer environment. These same Jews often become very involved in all aspects of Jewish community life. Our Hevra Kadisha is a mix of old-timers and relatively new residents. Perhaps there will always be a variation of this theme existing in these small communities.


The Hevra Kadisha groups that the interviewees belonged to had been in existence over a wide span of years. Six communities had a Hevra Kadisha that was roughly 100 years old, or as Rona put it “since the beginning of time.” Five communities started a Hevra in the past thirty years. Dov was unclear about the length of time, beyond  “many years.” Their personal involvement in the Hevra stretched across a similar span from 2 ½ to 43 years. Four interviewees had over thirty years of experience in the Hevra Kadisha, giving them a unique window of perspectives on organizational practices, training and membership. These individuals were direct witness to changes in these practices as membership shifted from a primarily immigrant population to one made up of those born in North America. The Old World population has now largely died or become too frail to participate in this ritual. I was curious to see what their influence had been, and if it had survived in any manner.

Several people mentioned that their inspiration to join the Hevra Kadisha came through family members. Shlomo’s words were testament to his father’s example.  “My father was a Hevra Kadisha man – this is the best way. When a father moves out there are a set of shoes that are empty. I went into his footsteps.” Amos beautifully described the religious influence of his grandparents. His grandfather and his grandmother had both been active members of the Hevra Kadisha. His grandmother used to hand-sew takhrikhim. “The ladies would come over and sew instead of drinking coffee”. When his grandfather died he wanted to help but was told to wait. “The others did the Hevra Kadisha for him when he died, they would not allow me to do it. I sat outside and waited. They told me, next time, we’ll call you.” The Hevra Kadisha gave Amos both an example of his grandparent’s commitment to this mitzvah and an opportunity for him to then continue to honor their memory.

Dov’s father was a member of the Hevra Kadisha. However, Dov’s actual decision to join the Hevra was influenced more by the death of a dear family friend.

My father preceded me. He was a member of the Hevra Kadisha. The man that headed it was a very close family friend. Back in the 60’s, I was in my early 20’s. He kind of unexpectedly got sick and died. He was not very old. He’d been trying to get me to join, but I wasn’t all that anxious. [After he died] I said I wanted to do this for him. He was the first. 

Such memories certainly gave these participants very tangible and intimate links with preceding generations. Hannah, while not having direct familial links to Hevra Kadisha, and in fact having no idea about its existence as a child, did grow up near her eighty-year-old grandparents. “As a child I went to zillions of funerals. I understood very early that the function of a funeral was not to cry but to bond.” These experiences, forged in her childhood obviously created a visceral knowledge within her about the value of these rituals, and a commitment to ensure that she too would act to create and nurture similar bonds amongst members of her present-day community.

It is not always the death of a family member that may instigate joining a Hevra Kadisha. Golda described the death of a very close friend twelve years ago. Although the Hevra Kadisha was very active, she could not imagine doing taharah for her friend.

She had a long dying period. I didn’t see how I could possibly participate. I called people in S. to come down. I have never forgotten their response. ‘This is your loving deed that you can do for your friend for which you will receive no thanks’. I thought about it – she is absolutely right.

Variations of this phrase punctuated most interviews. This ritual I think does not only powerfully embody both thought and deed, the one reinforcing the other in a seamless fashion, it is truly a gift of love. Another woman reflecting on the imminent death of an elderly and much loved member of her community also wondered how they would get through the taharah. But as we talked, she too was very clear that these rituals were exactly what were going to help them cope with their friend’s death.

Rona had done considerable research into the history of her own Jewish community. She interviewed one gentleman in the course of her research who told her a story about his father and the Hevra Kadisha in his day. She related the story to me. “When he became 13 he automatically became a member. When the banquet [the annual banquet for members of the Hevra Kadisha, often on 7 Adar] was held, if a member was ill and couldn’t come, the dinner was sent to their house.” 7Adar is considered to be both the date of birth and yahrtzeit of the death of Moses. The date was chosen for the banquet because it was Moses who took on the responsibility for carrying the bones of Joseph out of Egypt. It is the date in many communities when the members of the Hevra Kadisha are honored. The members of the Hevrot fast during the day, as they beg forgiveness for any unintentional spiritual lapses during the previous year while performing their duties. A dinner often follows the fast.

Such personal touches often continue to mark these rituals in small communities. In this same community Rona described her own learning about how to do a taharah. She learned with elderly immigrant women, who, as they prepared the body of the woman who had died, would discuss details of her life.

[They] would tell stories about the woman; funny and not so funny stories, but never disrespectful. They would remember how one was such a good cook, or how one lady loved to play cards and how they could imagine her still playing cards. We still do this. We all know everyone.

Shula recalled a similar group of four to five women who had emigrated from Europe and still spoke Yiddish.

[They were] little ladies. I knew them. They told me where to stand. We would do taharah and then ask questions afterwards. It was as if they were visiting someone they loved, they spoke in very loving tones…At the time I was overwhelmed with love as well. It seemed to be so perfect. 

Today in the same community the personal stories have been replaced with more formal prayers, a change in custom against which the ladies fought, a change that members in other communities continue to resist.

Participants were not themselves strictly observant in any aspect of Jewish religious life. Jonathan observed that he thought the term observance was usually open to personal interpretation. “Jews think they’re observant in terms of where they are.”  As if confirming this opinion, Gershon said that he was observant, but “not by Orthodox standards.” Traditional religious observance, while clearly equated in the minds of many participants with Orthodox Judaism, was not considered a prerequisite to membership in the Hevra Kadisha.

Most participants were clear that such an expectation of religious orthodoxy could not be possible in their communities, Dov even declaring that, “I’ve never heard of that.”  The qualifications they were looking for in their members were not degrees of observance as it is traditionally understood, for example being shomer Shabbat (keeping the laws of the Sabbath) or keeping kosher (keeping the dietary laws), but good moral character and an interest in participating in this mitzvah. The bottom line for one group was willingness. Myre welcomed  “anyone who expresses interest, while Dov looked for  “willingness to participate” and Rona was “happy to have anyone.” Others looked for committed individuals who were actively involved in their respective communities. Malka described her interest in involving “ethical and moral individuals, who had good standing in the community.” Hannah said her group looked for “people who were involved, good community people. If they were extremely liberal we might discourage them. This is very holy work. We have to feel that God is present. There is an understood standard.”

One community had considerably more stringent requirements for membership. Shlomo described these standards. Prospective members needed to be at least eighteen years old, a long-standing member of the Hevra Kadisha must have sponsored them, and they must have given at least an $18 donation to United Jewish Appeal. There was also a one-year probation period for new members and a clearly stated expectation that members would attend at funerals. These stipulated conditions were not perceived by the interviewee as discouraging participation at all.

Even though strict observance of the mitzvot were not a stated formal requirement for participation in the Hevra Kadisha, one participant discussed how this mitzvah acted to encourage observance in other aspects of life. Shula described this influence and tendency within her own group. “[Members tend to become] more observant and observance increases. I have seen this in my own husband, most definitely. He grew up Reform and now he is in shul every week.” Two other participants also noted this shift towards greater and deeper levels of ritual observance.

Membership in the Hevra Kadisha is limited by tradition to “pious Jews.” (Kol Bo ‘al Aveilut, p. 87, as cited by Klein, 1979, p. 277). However, while membership is limited to Jews, if necessary preparation may be done by non-Jews, if supervised by Jews (Melamed Leho’il, vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah 112, quoted in responsum on Taharah by R. Sanders Tofield, Law Committee Archives, as cited by Klein, 1979, p. 277). I was interested to note that four participants actually mentioned being Jewish as a requirement for membership. While this might seem a given, such a statement might also be a reflection on the level of intermarriage that is a fact in most small communities. I suggest that the very fact of ‘Jewish’ even being mentioned, never mind as repeatedly as it was, (given the context and nature of this very traditional ritual) might be an indicator of the depths of intermarriage in small Jewish communities. Such mention might also indicate that the leadership of the Hevra Kadisha (as well as of other Jewish organizations) might be experiencing some degree of pressure from the general synagogue membership to broaden its constituency, if not explicitly, then implicitly. However, such mention of ‘Jewish’ might also be taken more pragmatically. Jews living in small towns often have little reinforcement or reflection of their Jewish identity and values outside formal Jewish settings. Such Jewish identity must usually be routinely reinforced, if not pursued. This reinforcement may also require Jews to make routine statements pertaining to their identity, an identity that Jews in more urban climes may take utterly for granted.

Overall my sense of the members of these groups was that of people who were very sincere and dedicated to the Hevra Kadisha. Myre was mostly concerned that prospective members “recognize it for the mitzvah that it is.” Participant’s entry into their Hevra had occurred in various ways but they all seemed to hold a single-minded commitment to the continuing of the mitzvah of taharah. The Hevra Kadisha, by its very tradition of privacy, would seem to lend itself to a certain circumspection of character when individuals consider membership. Most participants described choosing new members as a process of self-selection, a process that in many cases was reinforced by the physical and temporal demands of the work.

A fascinating tension began to emerge as participants discussed their membership in their Hevrei Kadisha. An unstated yet perceptible equation between belief and practice began to tentatively emerge. While significant differences are generally understood to exist between modern belief systems (rationality, scientism, a generalized discomfort with the concept of after-life, individual authority and control of personal destiny) and those of pre-modern or more traditional beliefs (belief in after-life, superstition, faith, an essential integration of individual into communal norms and community structures), participants gave voice to how modern beliefs worked in tandem, and not opposition with pre-modern traditional practices. This simultaneous continuity of commitment by Hevra Kadisha members to an historical practice, while having no intellectual framework for the context of belief or origins of that same practice was fascinating to me. 

Because of the “stripped-down” nature of most present-day mortuary manuals and the subsequent lack of references thereof to religious belief, the Hevra Kadisha practices became that of “we do what we do because that is how we have done it,” instead of “we do this because this is how we understand the development of this practice within the context of our religious history.” This phenomenon may not, in fact, be unusual. Within more generalized observance many Jews keep to various religious practices without having any biblical or rabbinic contextual understanding for that same practice. However this study certainly highlighted how disconnected many Jews are from the origins of Hevra Kadisha customs, and how many want to have a deeper understanding of the origins of these rituals.

While traditional commitment to halakhah and mitzvot were no longer considered primary factors for individuals to consider themselves observant, (never mind influence a determination of membership in the Hevra Kadisha), most participants did consider themselves to be observant Jews. I wondered if the significant commitment to the continuation of the Hevra Kadisha (expressed by all participants) created a milieu of observance, offered an umbrella of belief, by which participants could at least anticipate a commitment to traditional religious observance. Even if not unfurled, such an umbrella could be tucked under their arms, and might afford potential protection from any rain of disdain that might be voiced by more traditionally observant Jews.

While most Hevra Kadisha members I interviewed expressed little if any understanding about why they were doing particular rituals, they were nevertheless committed to the form of those same rituals continuing. Traditionally, the rituals of taharah are understood to symbolize the symbiotic relationship between deed and faith, linking presence in this world to belief in presence in the world-to-come. However, it would seem today that the actions of these rituals continue despite any provision for intellectual, religious, mystical, or historical understandings about their original if not evolving meanings. Given that so much of our comprehension of self is discovered through symbol and myth, I found this primary dedication to form, in spite of such lack of knowledge, intriguing.

I would argue that post-modern conceits of deconstruction and subsequent lack of any possibility of sustained meaning have not entered into the consciousness of the average person. Most people, myself included, tend to still occupy an intellectual realm of modern rationality, even as we may still appreciate pre and post-modern symbolism. Given that supposition, I find it testament to the incredibly enduring nature of these rituals that they have survived in such a vacuum of meaning. As I continued to explore the customs of different Hevra Kadisha groups these tensions continued to intrigue me.

Why join a Hevra Kadisha?

In any Jewish community there are usually many opportunities for participation in communal activities. Organizations such as Hadassah-Wizo, ORT, the Federation of Men’s Clubs, Women’s League, the synagogue board or executive, and various historical, educational and family service committees all rely heavily on individuals volunteering their time. Given the variety of options, why would someone choose to join the Hevra Kadisha? Many people are uncomfortable if not repulsed by the idea of even being in the presence of a dead body. Others think such work is a job best left to the hands of professionals. If, as Shlomo said, volunteerism really is on the way out, how is it that so many people have become so fiercely dedicated to this mitzvah? I wanted to know not only what led to their long-term dedication but also what prompted their initial participation.

Politics in all its guises, both positive and negative, was often cited by participants as a motivating factor in joining the Hevra Kadisha. Jonathan talked about the plans of his community to build their own ‘funeral home’ structure.

[There will be] room for families, room for the Hevra Kadisha, taharah, meetings and gatherings…This opens up the door for the community to have more control. We need to be in control. We need to get our power back, provide the service at an affordable price.


Not only did membership in the Hevra Kadisha give Jonathan an opportunity to become an activist and proponent for his community, his involvement has expanded his definition of what it means to be Jewish.

This is my way of being a Jew. I don’t understand why Jews can’t just be Jews. I don’t see any difference. Especially with the Hevra Kadisha this applies. The Hevra Kadisha has no boundaries. It takes the responsibility for the community to bury its dead. It is way past political differences.

In this vision then, the Hevra Kadisha then, can become a place to both intensely connect with a personal sense of Judaism, (Herberg’s mitzvah-for-me), and can also open doorways between Jews who may otherwise have little cause for connection. Ironically, for Zev and for Malka the Hevra was a very welcome haven from the politicking they so disliked, a politicking that seemed to them to permeate synagogue life. The Hevra Kadisha was their refuge, a sanctuary where their souls were renewed.  

Aging baby boomers reflected on the increased presence of death in their lives. Gershon seemed particularly aware of how his generation was now in its middle years, years where he and many others were confronting death more and more often. 

I’m fifty…Joining the Hevra Kadisha was a reaction to what was going on in my life. My mother was here in a nursing home and she was deteriorating over three years. A good friend of my wife died of cancer. A young boy died of CF. Our generation is constantly having to confront the reality of death. We need to embrace it, learn more about it, learn how it relates to me. As Jews we have a straightforward and positive manner.

Certainly every generation has had to face death. But as they have with every decade the large numbers of baby-boomers are on a crest of influence.  In many communities this influence is being felt as a renewal and rediscovery of aspects of Jewish life. The baby-boomer generation, for example, is a definite factor in the considerable renewal of interest in formal Jewish learning. Social activism led many people of this generation, not just Jews, into an intense examination of their personal values and ethics. The social movements and attitudes that fired political and social activism in the 1960’s and 1970’s were often brought into synagogues as individual Jews returned to Judaism.

The term ba’alei teshuvah has generally been applied to Jews returning to Orthodoxy, but there are also many thousands of Jews who have similarly returned to the more liberal denominations of Judaism. As these Jews return to synagogue communities, they are often blending their newly found learning and commitment to traditional obedience to religious rituals, with their previously held values of ‘radical’ hands-on activism. Ironically, such activism also reflects very traditional Jewish values. The prophetic tradition teaches that God demands Jews value and perform acts of loving-kindness and justice. Within this tradition of prophetic teachings Jews are called to go beyond mere ritualized adherence to and performance of the mitzvot, towards developing an activated consciousness of human and divine connection that will sustain the viability of such actions. Each morning as observant Jews place tefillin on their arm and forehead the following words are recited, “And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, And I will espouse you with faithfulness, Then you shall be devoted to the Lord”  (Hosea 2:21 -22, JPS edition Tanakh, 1988, p. 984). As God is bound to us, as we are to God, so too are Jews bound to each other. Such ethical awareness and activism that may have been previously attributed solely to particular modern social movements may now be recognized by many Jews as an inherent element of their traditional Jewish heritage.

Several participants discussed their quest for a deeper understanding of the process of death, and how that understanding offered an essential and enriching element in their lives. As Malka clearly stated this quest was a component in her choice to continue her membership in her Hevra Kadisha. “I’m a member of the Hevra Kadisha because I think death is part of life and makes life richer because you’re aware of the process that you are involved in. it makes the sanctity of life real. Confronting death is like confronting birth.” This ritual contact with death also gave Gershon a personal philosophy that embraced the rich blessings of life.  “This is the sort of thing that will draw people closer. We are able to see the world of life and sunshine, we know how to take advantage of that.” Tzvi described how this mitzvah enhanced his life by its very necessity. “It’s a mitzvah. You do it once and you realize what you have done – this is the natural, normal way. There are no noble reasons. It is just something that has to be done.”

From the most prosaic and pragmatic of reasons to the more philosophical, this ritual was acknowledged by these participants as an instrumental and essential component in their awareness and understanding of the cycles of life and death, death and life.

Death of a family member or a close friend was a significant factor for several participants joining a Hevra Kadisha. Golda described the death of a friend’s mother as impetus for her organizing her first taharah. “I became aware we had to do something. Burial was more than just digging a hole.” There was a sense throughout all of these interviews that very particular personal and communal significance was attached to this ritual. For example, Shula was often called to the hospital to make the necessary arrangements for the release of bodies. Nurses at the hospital had told her several times that the work of the Hevra Kadisha – though they did not know to call it by name – was uniquely special. “[The nurses would say] ‘There is something you Jews have that no one else has’ – what is missing in their grieving is that connection.” The nurses knew what many Jews have sadly lost. As many Jews have left behind traditional rituals and community many have also abandoned this profound sense of connection. Shula expressed a tangible gratitude for the functional connectivity of these rituals. The rituals of the Hevra Kadisha act as a spiritual and physical bond between the present generation, the generations preceding and the generations to follow.

This generational link is perhaps most poignant as Jews recall the millions who perished in the Shoah (the Holocaust). As some Jews say Kaddish weekly for the six million who perished, others perceive the Hevra Kadisha as providing an opportunity to memorialize the anonymity of their deaths. Malka expressed her need to continue this work partly “because 6 million Jews were killed and not given proper burials.” The rituals of the Hevra Kadisha can also provide very real comfort for those who survived the Shoah, but now face death in their old age. Shula described such a couple.

Once there was a Holocaust survivor couple. She was in the hospital and died. The hospital called me in the middle of the night. They couldn’t get him to leave his wife and go home. I went to the hospital and then went with him to the funeral home. He was in the Hevra Kadisha forever. He kept saying ‘You’re going to take care of my Sarah, you’re going to take care of my Sarah’. He relied on us.

This man’s connection with these rituals, so well known from his own participation, enabled him to finally release his beloved wife, knowing he could trust the compassion and loving-kindness of the hands and hearts of the Hevra Kadisha.  Yet another survivor from this same community had a very different reaction to the idea of these same rituals. Again, Shula told me this story with compassion and empathy.

We had a woman in the congregation who got out (of Germany) as a teenager, but her husband was detained in a German prison, not the camps. He was put in a very small cell for 9-10 months. He could only sit with his knees tucked up. Ever since then he couldn’t ride in a car, even a bus – it was too claustrophobic. He walked everywhere. He insisted he would have to be cremated. He insisted, ‘You can’t put me in a box’.  The woman asked – what can I do? She asked her brother, who was a rabbi, and he told her that King Saul chose to be cremated. If it was good enough for him it was good enough for her husband.

This rabbi was recalling the story of Saul and his three sons who were killed and beheaded by the Philistines. Even though cremation was not Jewish practice (and is, in fact, forbidden by Jewish law) their bodies were taken to Beth-shan and burned, and then the bones were buried (First Samuel 31:12 -13). Kimchi (biblical commentator, 1160-1235) has suggested that “it is possible that in this case the bodies were so badly decomposed that it was considered an affront to the dead to bury them in that state” (Goldman, S., 1962, pp.184-185). Thus a biblical precedent allowed compassion for the needs of this survivor’s neshama (soul) to also override the protocols of tradition. That the Hevra Kadisha stretched to comply with the aberrant request of this survivor to be cremated demonstrated their recognition of his despair and honor for his dignity even as they found a way to locate their decision in Jewish text.

Some participants discussed their decision to join the Hevra Kadisha in very pragmatic terms. This was a mitzvah. It was necessary, and it kept the tradition alive. Some spoke of this mitzvah being the most important of all mitzvot. Rona remembered her father’s words to this day.

I remember my father telling me this is the greatest mitzvah there ever is. When you do something for someone there is always the possibility that they will acknowledge you. This is the one thing you can do that the person can never do anything for you…I just keep hearing my father’s voice coming back to me. I think I am doing it for him.

Not all children appreciate the merit of this mitzvah as Myre ruefully acknowledged.  “My children think I am out of my mind. But I recognize the mitzvah for what it is.” How is the legacy of this mitzvah best transmitted through the generations? How do we educate our children and our younger members so that they don’t think we are out of our mind, so that they choose to join their own Hevra Kadisha? Later, I will look at the challenges regarding education about these rituals within our communities.

In many ways taharah is inexplicable. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is so little descriptive literature about this ritual. But even without any formal explanations to act as reinforcement, many participants spoke about the intrinsic value of such work. Malka described the experiential knowledge that nourished and sustained her. “I think you only know what the Hevra Kadisha means until after you have done it. First you do and then you understand. It is a living thing, based on experiences. It is the stuff you cannot tell people.”

Golda also described the inner recompense this ritual affords. “We are never paid – only from within.” Generally the word radical is understood to mean in opposition to tradition. But within these rituals the meanings of these words merge. Radical can mean going to the root of a matter, affecting its very foundation. These rituals founded in tradition are at the root of our connection with life and death. The Hevra Kadisha is radical in this very primacy. These rituals enable the living to learn from death as the dead are supported by the living.  Amos referred to this merging of meaning when he described what the Hevra means to him. “It has given me the root of it. It is some way I can hold on to a little part of tradition in my shul.” Amos described how the cycles of life and death are made palpable within the very heart of these rituals.

Some of these stories bring tears to my eyes every time I read them, every time I hear them in my head. They are poignant and intimate; they are stories of courage and fear. Reizl described her work in palliative care. She discussed her need for a sense of connection with the soul of the metah. “I feel I need to follow right through, I feel I can be of some help to the soul, especially with a more difficult death. I help with ‘soul retrieval’, if someone is caught between death and the afterlife, I can help.”

This woman described several occasions where she strongly experienced herself as a spiritual conduit during taharah. Like Reizl, Hevra Kadisha members may experience a sense of themselves as a gesher, as a bridge working collectively in this world to help the neshamah of the met/metah on its journey. As individuals spoke about why and how they became members of the Hevra Kadisha I sensed a larger gesher extending between us all, with the wings of the Shekhinah (God’s Presence in this world) both span and truss. The first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet are often counted out loud as the ties of the takhrikhim are twisted, then tied into three connected but unknotted bows. Reciting aleph, bet, gimel, dalet members of the Hevra Kadisha invoke God’s gift of letters, and the calling of the world into creation by Word. The ties are twisted into the shape of a shin. Shin is the letter that begins one of the names of God, Shaddai, a name that connotes the power of God. It is also the first letter of the Shema, the Jewish creed of belief in one God. So as the body of the dead is dressed and the shrouds are tied in this holy letter, even the garments become prayer, threads of connection between our hands, the neshama of the dead and God.


What training had these participants been given when they first joined? Did they feel that such training was adequate? What training did members receive today? Given the paucity of literature on the subject, I was curious to know how information about taharah was relayed. I was also interested in participant’s opinions about how this training could be improved, if at all. The taharah manuals that I have seen to-date provide an outline, often fairly cryptic, of procedures to follow. But I was curious about what other texts, if any, were available for training purposes. My personal experience of the Hevra Kadisha was that training was usually based on an apprenticeship model. Most participants echoed this understanding.

All participants discussed how prospective Hevra Kadisha members would be initially invited to observe a taharah. When I asked Shlomo about his training he laughed and succinctly replied.  “When I became a member? – Zilch! I was dealing with the old timers!”  Shula also started her initial training years ago and she described her early experiences similarly.

There was no service or reading when I started. The women were in their 60’s and 70’s…the older women had their own ways…We would do taharah and then after they let me ask questions, and they asked me if I was ready to do it next time. If I made a mistake they would just raise their eyebrows.

I often heard from participants that in earlier days, taharah was especially a ritual handed down by elder to younger members. There was a sense of dignity and continuity in such generational transition, and in some communities this is still the case. As Dov described training in his group is largely informal. “There is no formal training. The elders lead the way, directing the ritual. It is an apprenticeship.” Today, many of the ‘old-timers’ are long gone, leaving the aging middle generation with the responsibility of passing on this heritage. In other groups, there appeared to be less of a span in ages, particularly if the groups were relatively new.

A Hevra Kadisha group other than their present community trained several participants. Hannah felt that the training she and the women in her group received was very positive and thorough.

We were made to feel very comfortable by the veteran women. Once we got over our terror at being in the mortuary, we relaxed. There were no bodies, only Annie, a doll. They talked us through; we asked our questions…For the first death we went back with the body to M. We went in and worked with three women who were experienced, it was so much easier, touching her, feeling the emotions. It was a beautiful experience.

Unfortunately, not all such instruction was as positive. Myre learned by wanting to improve on the carelessness he had observed, determined to do better with his own group. Only two members talked about specific formal training. Jonathan mentioned holding training workshops, but then stated that he thought they needed to do more training and educational programs in their community.

Gershon enthusiastically described training sessions, which he had experienced.

[He thought they were] as good as it gets. I was originally trained by the Orthodox in Denver. They gave me tapes and books. They hold daylong programs annually. During the day you watch tapes, typically there is someone there to speak, the rabbis speak, other Hevra members speak, and the funeral director discusses safety issues. The books are on a list with the highest priority at the top. Some of the reading is optional. The leadership of the Hevra conducts the program and acts as coordinator.

Obviously such training sessions are of a very different nature than more informal observational styles of learning about taharah. I would suggest that today, when there are fewer elders to pass on the wisdom of their experiences, and especially when new groups are forming, that these types of training seminars will become increasingly useful if not necessary. New medical circumstances (HIV, Hepatitis B) which may pose a potential risk for Hevra Kadisha members, as well as limited availability of medical personnel who can serve on the taharah teams, may also necessitate some level of formalized education and training.

Participants voiced varying concerns about formal and informal training methods. Rona was very clear that the observational-and-then-participatory training style was completely adequate. “We do it exactly the way we did when I started out.”  Participants also stated concerns about education that went beyond the outlining of actual practical details and procedures. Hannah was concerned that prospective members “understood the spiritual nature of what is done”. She also suggested that it would be important “to be very nurturing of people, to bring them into the mortuary to get them used to being there.”  While some felt that such training could be managed adequately in his or her own communities Golda thought it would be useful to have “somebody from outside the community come in for the training.”  She felt that she had been instructing new members for a number of years, and that a fresh perspective might be both enlightening and inspiring. Amos also felt that what they were doing was adequate but insufficient. “We probably don’t do as well in that area as we could. We need some explanations and learning as we go. A class or two would help. We could have a big group discussion and explain things.”

Such group discussions and more formalized learning certainly could complement the more individualized on-the-job learning that characterized most of the participant’s training. Shula had an idea for a training workshop that she has been discussing with her rabbi.  “I talk about doing workshops with the rabbi, with children of aging parents, to try and get them to come. It should be timed so they don’t feel on the spot, [it would be an opportunity] to let them ask questions.”  Such a proactive workshop would have the merit of introducing basic death and mourning rituals to the surviving family members. However, it would require an acknowledgment of imminent or even potential death that many people might find uncomfortable, if not morbid.

Zev, who had moved from one community to another, also voiced his concerns that members be given adequate practical instruction. He was particularly concerned that even after years of participation during taharah, members still did not know techniques for more easily dressing the body.  “Members should be shown how to dress the body properly. They don’t know how to dress here; they were always struggling.” However, such correct instruction may be difficult to find, especially in more isolated communities. It was only when this individual arrived in his new community, bringing skills he had learned in a larger community with a much longer tradition of Hevra Kadisha, that anyone even knew another technique was available. He was then able to pass on these techniques to members of his new community.

Dov voiced his concern about access to information. He discussed his support for a transition from oral to written transmission of details at least for matters concerning a local Hevra. Even though Dov realized much information about taharah and other obligations of the Hevra Kadisha continues to be passed on orally and by direct example, he expressed his worry that such important procedural information was not also written. His experience was that such information was being kept  “only in the head of the current president. I feel like the person heading this should write down all the information for the second in command…some things have to be passed on that way.”

Such a style of retention of information might be more often found in smaller communities where there might be few or any employees to create and manage information systems. But still, Dov’s point is well taken. Possible illness or the extended travel of the person with such information ‘in his head’ can lead to very real foul-ups and difficulties for remaining members.

I asked participants what materials they were given to study, if any, as preparation for their involvement. Few materials were mentioned. Many participants cited Lamm (1969) as their only source of information, in addition to the taharah manual that their particular Hevra Kadisha used. They were generally positive in their assessment of this book, while at the same time aware of its limitations. Several people mentioned compiling their own collection of reading material – such as there was. Hannah described what she had been able to find. “There is a sentence here, a sentence there, there really isn’t much.” Dov mentioned occasionally receiving something from United Synagogue but that it was just very general reading about Hevra Kadisha. “Sometimes it applies and sometimes it doesn’t.” 

Rona was clear. Much as she thought she might enjoy reading more about Hevra Kadisha, she did not think that the women on her team would be interested in either reading about this ritual or participating in a formal workshop. I sensed she didn’t want to push her luck, given the limited human resources in her community. “I’m grateful when women want to participate – I don’t want to bother them with a lot of reading.” Amos was also concerned about what the response of members of his group would be to any expectation of formal study or reading. “I’m not sure everybody wants to be that well informed. Some say – just don’t load me up with lots of information.” There was a general sense that if such materials were more widely available then those who were interested could at least study the information themselves. Perhaps they could then pass on new information to other members of the Hevra Kadisha in a more informal or conversational manner.

There appeared to be a tension of needs between those who wanted to read as much as they could (and who were frustrated by a singular lack of text) and those who were uninterested in any level of formalized learning. Amos noted that relevant books were mentioned in their community newsletter.  “[But] they probably get used by the teachers in the Sunday School rather than by the Hevra Kadisha.” Golda perhaps best summed up the approach to this matter in her own inimitable manner.

People in our community, if they come up with anything, they bring it to me. I have all the known publications, which is so small…I learned (I was also one of the people who set up the kosher kitchen in the shul) which are the good hekhshers, and which are questionable. [21] [I learned] that there are levels of everything, from taharah to eating a hot dog.

Her respectful yet humorous pragmatism personified the attitudes of many of the participants. Recognizing this, I suggest that increased training, with both formal and informal styles to complement each other, can address the needs of prospective Hevra Kadisha members and can be gauged to the nuances of individual and community. Even as there are “levels of everything,” I believe most present-day Hevra Kadisha groups are spending their capital and not re-investing the interest of their members. As new groups form, as elders in communities themselves die such training becomes more essential. The present-day detachment of many Jews from understanding any textual or historical context about these rituals also necessitates greater degrees of training. As I will discuss later educational networks are being developed that will enable the Hevra Kadisha leadership and members to share their experiential resources and expertise. But one practical and essential aspect of training for all Hevra Kadisha members today is safety.


Safety precautions while conducting taharah were fairly standard even as safety has increasingly become a concern. None of the Hevra Kadisha groups required participants to have Hepatitis B inoculations, a procedure that is becoming recommended more frequently in urban groups. Rabbi Zohn stated that “there was no reason to not have Hepatitis B shots. I now recommend shots” (personal communication, September 11, New York). Certainly many urban Hevra Kadisha groups are grappling with regulating this procedure. For example, a member of New York’s Lincoln Square Hevra Kadisha posted the following question on-line;

“We have been told that the danger of infection from hepatitis is much greater than the danger of infection from the AIDS virus. Most of our members have already been vaccinated for hepatitis but not all. Do you advise or require all your members to take the hepatitis vaccination? Are you aware that after the first 3 initial injections, it is necessary to receive a booster injection?” See URL:  (https://www.jewish-funerals.org/infection.htm accessed January 10, 2001).

My sense is that there needs to be a concerted effort to clearly communicate to all Hevra Kadisha members what medical risks are involved with regard to hepatitis B and other infectious diseases.

Several participants mentioned that being in a small community provided them with a certain understood protection in that they usually knew everyone in the community, and knew with whom they were dealing. Most deaths were natural deaths, usually of the elderly. Several people mentioned that they had never dealt with contagious diseases of any kind.  But Dov, even as he described his Jewish community as tightly-knit, acknowledged that members of the Hevra Kadisha now had concerns about safety, particularly with regard to strangers they may be obligated to prepare.

[These concerns about contagious disease] have only come up in the last couple of years. Today we are much more careful, more by our own fear of what could happen, our own lay knowledge of bodily fluid contact. If the body is tagged hepatitis, we always ask to be notified. We are much more careful than I recall 25 years ago. We get a fair number of people we don’t know…different situations are far more frequent.

While members of the actual Jewish community may be well known to Hevra Kadisha members, it is entirely possible that they may encounter Jews unknown to them. There will always be a certain number of unaffiliated and unknown Jews that a Hevra Kadisha may encounter. In smaller communities the likelihood of a community volunteer Hevra Kadisha being called upon to provide taharah for a stranger is certainly possible. Such an occasion may, in fact, not only be more noticeable but may be considered more risky than in a larger city where the anonymity and professional services of a Jewish funeral home are usually in place. To this end, extra precautions may be necessary. Amos reinforced these perceptions by mentioning the differences in precautions his Hevra Kadisha used with strangers. “Most people we get, we know their health ailments. For people from out of town, we use all precautions.” A number of participants had discussed communicable diseases, including hepatitis and AIDS, within their groups. Some groups took direction and guidance from funeral home directors, while others turned to nurses and doctors who may assist the taharah team. Zev said his group arranged for doctors to come to the Hevra Kadisha meetings held once monthly to discuss various diseases and medical procedures. Only one Hevra had never discussed this aspect of safety during taharah.

When confronted with death by contagious disease, the possible medical risk to Hevra Kadisha members must be weighed against the task of completing a full taharah. Dov described exactly such a circumstance that his Hevra Kadisha had recently encountered.

We had somebody, not very long ago. We didn’t know much about them, and we didn’t know they had a contagious disease. Nobody mentioned any of this. We didn’t know until we read the tag. Four of us went out in a mid-winter snowstorm to get over there, without knowing anything about this person. We found out they wouldn’t do him in F. – they’re Orthodox. But we said, “If he’s Jewish we’ll do it.” The tag said ‘Be careful.’ The guys were very upset by that. They were upset that they didn’t tell us anything. I mean we’re here risking our lives. We did kind of a limited taharah. The washing was much more limited. We did manage to dress him in takhrikhim, but we were more careful in the washing and preparation. Very careful. We’re not professionals.

All participants wore latex gloves and gowns or smocks. Usually participants only wore single gloves, doubling up if only there was a problem, for example, cleaning the rectum. Some wore waterproof aprons over their gowns. Hannah described their precautions in this manner. “We try to imagine every surface being like tar, every surface is contaminated. We take the gowns off from the inside.” In some communities the gowns are cleaned after every usage. Zev described a similar technique for removing gloves, removing them from the inside, and being careful to never touch the outside of the glove.

Some participants wore foot coverings or rubber boots. Half the participants routinely wore surgical masks, the other half either did not wear masks or only under particular circumstances. One group had Plexiglas shields available if members wanted to use them. Few participants routinely changed their gloves between the washing of the body and the actual taharah. Scrubbing well with antiseptic soap after completing the taharah was also mentioned. If any IV’s or needles needed to be removed, participants either relied on the expertise of the nurses and doctors on their team, or on the expertise of the funeral home personnel, who often had removed such needles prior to the taharah.  Hannah actually described how to remove an IV.  “You take a couple of clamps, clip as closely to the body as you can. While keeping the clamps on, take out the IV. Leave the clamps on, leave them alone.” Other participants did not mention such specific detail.

Communication is probably the most important aspect of safety for the Hevra Kadisha. Communication between the funeral home and the members of the Hevra about the state of the body to be prepared is very important, as is communication between medical personnel and members as they learn how to best deal with situations that may arise. Even where there is potentially very low risk within a given community, it is essential this information be shared.

Certainly concern for their fellow members safety was an overall issue for most of these participants. There were clear expectations that they should and would receive prior warning if there were any situations where that safety might be compromised. But as concerned as the participants were about this aspect of taharah, it felt secondary to the primary purpose. Beyond this concern was the greater concern that they be willing and available to provide a dignified taharah for any Jew who needed. A number of participants discussed their reliance on the knowledge of funeral home directors. Hevra Kadisha members, as volunteers, expressed their appreciation for the expertise of these professionals. 

Funeral homes

One of the primary responsibilities of the Hevra Kadisha is to arrange for the taharah and for the use of space, as needed, in a funeral home. Most small communities conduct the taharah in a non-Jewish funeral home. Participants described the relationships between Hevra Kadisha members and funeral home directors as generally very cordial. Employees of the funeral homes tended to take care of all the paper work essential for the mourning family: notifications to various government offices, obituary forms, and death certificates. The funeral home directors also had multiple roles to play vis-à-vis the Hevra Kadisha. They advised on safety matters, and they often had checked the body prior to the arrival of Hevra Kadisha members, removing any IV or medical equipment. While some Hevra Kadisha groups were very firm about opening the body bag themselves, others allowed the funeral home to prepare the body at this initial stage, prior to the actual taharah. The funeral home directors routinely made arrangements for the funeral, for the digging of the grave, and for the use of a hearse. Most Hevra Kadisha groups also had an arrangement whereby the funeral home would purchase kosher caskets and takhrikhim as needed.

Of necessity then, the relationship between the Hevra Kadisha and the funeral home is closely intertwined. Although I hadn’t asked directly about this relationship, all participants discussed the funeral homes they worked with. Some groups had a long-standing relationship with one or several funeral homes; others had a portable supplies cabinet that they took with them to the funeral home of the families’ choice. One participant reminisced about how his Hevra Kadisha used to pick up the body from the family home or hospital themselves, but today the funeral home was responsible for all such transportation.

The financial ups and downs of the funeral industry, particularly over this past decade, have led to considerable re-organizations of ownership. Loewen is the “second largest and fastest growing publicly held funeral service corporation in North America” according to its Internet web site. Loewen operates more than 1,000 funeral homes, 450 cemeteries and 50 crematoriums in the U.S. and Canada. Funeral industry whistle blower Darryl J. Roberts has criticized the climate surrounding funeral services takeovers (Roberts, 1998, n.p.). Such takeovers have led to changes that Shula described as leading to a more strained relationship.

The funeral home was sold to a conglomerate, and there was less and less sensitivity. Once they even walked in on us. I talked with them at a board meeting. Later, a new funeral home was going to be built close to our neighborhood. There were protests from people about its location, so they used us as an example of why it would be okay to build there. They told everyone that Jews don’t embalm bodies – so it went through. They needed us, so now we have our own room with our own cabinet.

This situation clearly became a case of quid pro quo. Another community, however, was anxious to end its dependence on the funeral home they were using. They decided to fund raise to create their own Jewish funeral home. They were paying $2200 for each use of the funeral home preparation room, dollars they preferred to see stay in their own Jewish community.

Sometimes the relationship between funeral home and Hevra Kadisha was very positive. Golda described an arrangement whereby the “funeral home lets the Hevra Kadisha use the facility gratis.” Golda also pointed out that the funeral director she worked with was actually very knowledgeable about Jewish customs as well as customs of other cultures. She stated that such familiarity was “part of their training.” In one city an owner of a funeral home used by the Hevra Kadisha was even invited to the annual Hevra Kadisha banquet, a clear indication of the respectful relationship that existed. The funeral home, now managed by the owner’s son, had provided services to the Jewish community for many years, in a relationship of mutual regard and respect. Certainly the overall tone of relations between most participants and funeral homes appeared to be one of respect. When there were problems between a funeral home and a Hevra Kadisha a meeting with those involved usually immediately resolved any problems. It would certainly be advisable for several representatives of a Hevra Kadisha to meet with the management of any funeral home that they are planning to use and explain the basic requirements necessitated. My experience is that funeral home personnel are pleased to also learn more about specific rituals and custom. Such time is well spent. 

Many participants also mentioned developing their relationship with the local coroner as an essential part of their work. Based on the experiences of some participants I also recommend that a representative of each Hevra Kadisha be pro-active and arrange to meet with the local coroner to explain Jewish customs and expectations, particularly with regard to autopsies. In some communities the rabbi spoke with the coroner, in others a member of the Hevra Kadisha did so. The emphasis on doing minimal damage and on sewing the bodies back up as completely as possible often required careful explanation. Rona’s group had a particularly horrifying situation.

Once we had a situation where the organs had not been put back in after an autopsy; they had not sewn the body back up. We tried not to look. We just put a towel over the body and then dressed the body. A doctor went and talked with the people at the hospital and explained we were not professionals. He said ‘I don’t want to ever hear of this again, it is inexcusable’. I have made up a list of instructions to give nursing homes about what to do and what not to do.

Myre also mentioned their “good relationship with the local coroner. We really discourage autopsies.” Whether new or already existing, each group should seriously consider being proactive in this matter, and approach not only coroners, but all professional medical organizations, nursing homes and hospitals, leaving them information about preferred procedures for handling a Jewish body after death. There was a general consensus amongst participants as they discussed their relationship with these professional groups, that once individuals in these groups had been sufficiently informed about Jewish customs these expectations were honored. However, given the considerable changes of employment in both funeral home and medical personnel, such educational efforts need to routinely become part of the responsibilities of Hevra Kadisha members.

Taharah: Manuals

Historically, most communities borrowed and/or published their own version of a mortuary manual. Similarly today, all participants had some form of manual or guide to consult during the taharah. These manuals were also often borrowed from other communities and then either revised or used as is. Some participants were completely satisfied with their manuals but others mentioned changes they would like to see incorporated in a new manual. Several participants mentioned that the pages of their manual were plasticized, which provided useful protection given the washing and handling of wet cloths.

Several communities had both the procedures and the berakhot (blessings) fastened to the wall of their preparation room where they conduct the taharah. Rona described how her community actually had an artistic rendition of their guide fastened to the wall of their preparation room.

An artist did a big picture with all the rules and regulations and the prayers. It is on the wall, we leave it up. It is adequate to our needs. His son re-did the painting. The man had originally written taharah incorrectly and the son wrote it the same way. He wrote tarah.

The word tarah is missing the central letter hay, a letter that can symbolize the Presence of God. The letter hay has multi-dimensional meanings. Talmud discusses the form of the letter hay. It has three sides, but one side is open. It is said that this indicates the freedom of choice open to all humans. We are not confined to religious observance but given free choice. However if one leaves the strictures of Torah it is possible to slip and fall through the open space into an abyss. At the same time, the letter symbolizes the potential for teshuvah, for repentance, and God’s ever-readiness to forgive (Menachot 29b, Munk, 1983, p.87). As art may imitate reality so too may this missing letter reflect a perception of God’s absence. Ritualized human intervention is necessary to complete the purifying quality of taharah as human hands prepare the met/metah for return to God.

All of the manuals had both Hebrew and English text. Only two groups used manuals that had transliterated Hebrew. Only some of the guides had separate text for men and women or offered necessary linguistic gender changes within the body of the prayers. Several people seemed surprised by this question of gendered language and didn’t know if the text provided for this or not. Rona, for example, said, “I never thought about it.” Given the lack of Hebrew literacy in many small communities such inclusion should be considered standard in future publications. Several participants mentioned using the Jewish Sacred Society guide from Chicago. Zev particularly liked the graph that outlined responsibilities for particular individuals during the course of the taharah. However Hannah found the biggest problem with this particular guide was reading the Hebrew. Even Zev complained that the Hebrew in the booklet was tiny, the print was fuzzy, and thus generally difficult to read. Both Zev and Hannah wanted larger clear print that was more readable.

Many participants read the blessings in English as well as in Hebrew. Several participants mentioned the capacity of God to understand the blessings no matter what the language. All groups attempted to have at least one person on any team that could read Hebrew. However as Malka pointed out, “there is reading – and there is reading and understanding.” Shlomo, who has been doing taharah for over forty years didn’t understand Hebrew and felt prayer in English was entirely acceptable.  “We may as well be realistic, you can pray in English. I don’t understand Hebrew.” Halakhah does not require the blessings to be recited in Hebrew, but it is advised.

Rather than have only a person who is fluent in Hebrew recite the blessings, Rona mentioned that she used these blessings as an opportunity for different women to expand their learning. “Yes, they can read Hebrew. Three or four are converts. I try to have a different girl read the prayers each time, first in Hebrew, then in English.” Amos said, “If we have eight members, out of that eight, three can read. But someone is always present who can read.” Shula commented that even if someone chose to struggle with the Hebrew all his or her prayers were repeated in English. As the comments of these participants reflect, levels of Hebrew literacy are minimal in many small communities. However, all participants discussed the need to balance a sense of inclusion with respect for linguistic heritage.

Facility with Hebrew is a challenge for many North American Jews – for those in smaller, less urban communities where there may be fewer opportunities for adult learners, this challenge is particularly acute. Transliteration may be a window for some individuals to at least pronounce the Hebrew words they may be accustomed to only being able to hear. While I am sure God does hear our prayers in every language, I think the very sound of Hebrew syllables elicits a certain resonance, especially for Jews. Transliteration has obvious problems – as my attempts to transliterate the words in this text have illustrated. However it has real benefit as well. I think of transliteration as another form of gesher, a drawbridge enabling those who wish to traverse the moat of incomprehensibility into at least a temporary locale of vocalization. Reading the English as well grounds the participant’s understanding of the blessings, while the very sounds of the Hebrew carry those blessings through time, from ancient days into the future.

Shula found the language of the prayers, even in English, distancing. “I’d like to see the prayer service in contemporary language, so women can feel connected to it. It feels Old World, some women have a hard time reading it even in English.” Some of the taharah manuals reflect a similar searching for contemporaneity, providing alternate selections for the traditional prayers. Some groups seemed more comfortable incorporating new language, new blessings, while other groups were more dedicated to traditional prayers. Shula also mentioned that their Hevra did not always know the Hebrew names of the deceased, that they may only know their English name. In such a case the English name was used during the blessings. If the person’s Hebrew name is completely unknown the name Chaim/Chaya, a name that means life, may be given to reflect both their life in this world and in the world to come.

The taharah guides were varied. Not everyone even followed his or her own guides all the time. Amos described their practice as more fluid than rigid. “It [the manual] has been around for a while. The rabbi revised it. We skip some prayers, sometimes do a combination. We use it almost as a program guide. On occasions we don’t use it. It can be a matter of logistics.” Some suggested such flexibility was inappropriate. Zev, for example, said his Hevra did things “by the book.”

Whether sticking to “the book” or not, these manuals and the manner in which a community responds to the particular needs of a situation are part of an historical continuum. Certainly such fine-tuning on the part of each community brings the comments of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher to mind. Writing in the fourteenth century he commented on the burial practices of his age with pragmatic wisdom. “All of these matters are dependent on (local) custom…and in our generations these customs are forgotten…rather, this is how we practice now” (Kraemer, 2000, p.139). The basic order of the taharah procedure – washing, pouring of water, dressing – may remain much the same. But in each community minor variations continue to embellish these basic rituals.

Taharah procedures: Washing and purification

The word taharah has come to mean the entire ritual of preparing the body for burial. It is a word that commonly describes both an entire ritual and also a specific procedure within that entirety. Similarly the ritual bread served for Shabbat meals is called hallah when the hallah is actually a small, walnut sized piece of dough taken prior to shaping and baking the loaves. The piece of dough is then burned, a last remnant of the Priestly sacrifices in the Temple. There are three basic components to the taharah procedures: the rehitzah, or physical washing, the taharah or spiritual purification and the halbashah, or dressing.

When the members of the Hevra Kadisha arrived at a funeral home the body, (always face-upwards, never downwards), was usually already lying on a table, and covered with a sheet, having been previously prepared by the hospital or funeral home staff.

The tables may vary, but most commonly groups used a table similar to the one Myre described. His Hevra used a “slanting table which allows the water to drain into a receptacle.” Two groups stood the body up for the taharah, but both groups had a table that tilted, allowing members to comfortably support the body during the pouring of water. According to Rabbi Zohn, boards – usually lengths of 2×4’s – should be placed at the shoulders, hips and feet. These boards should first be dipped into the water (in the buckets used for washing) prior to being placed under the body. The boards act to support and lift the body, providing greater opportunity for more of the body area to be covered during the pouring of water. However, only one group routinely put boards underneath the body. 

The Hevra Kadisha members gather and a prayer is recited and then they begin to wash the body. While the body is being washed excerpts from the Song of Songs are usually recited. The body is washed thoroughly in a very specific order from head to toe, from right side to left. Once the body is completely washed, nine kabin (24 quarts) of water are poured over the body symbolizing a spiritual cleansing. This ritual of pouring of water is actually the taharah. Usually three separate vessels are filled with water and poured in sequence so that water streams continuously over the body. The taharah with its streaming waters acts to separate the spiritual from the physical. Water, so inherently a symbol of life, thus serves to help guide the soul on its journey to olam ha’ba.  A prayer is recited while the water is poured over the body from head to toe. After the taharah is complete the body is then carefully dried and dressed. The hair is combed prior to the halbashah.  As the Talmud states “in the World to Come the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and delight in the divine splendor” (Berakhot 17a). Through such preparations the head (and hair) of the soul is prepared to be crowned (Weiner, 1999, p.37).

None of the participants had a mikvah in their community to use for taharah. (Instead of pouring water over the body, the body is placed on a lift and then lowered into the waters of the mikvah).  But several groups did have a mechanized lift to help carry the met/metah from the table to the coffin, usually to alleviate the strain of lifting. As Shlomo asserted, without the lift “the women were breaking their backs.”

The concept of hiddur mitzvah, enhancing and beautifying a mitzvah, applies not only to beautiful silver crowns and shields for the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), it applies to all of Jewish life. No detail is considered too small to achieve this particular mitzvah. Myre gave a beautiful example of this mitzvah. In many communities plastic pails were used for pouring water during the taharah. Myre decided he wanted to replace the plastic buckets with something he thought was more fitting. He described his search for the containers he felt would bring hiddur mitzvah into the ritual of taharah.  He searched and searched. Eventually, living in a more rural area, he found three stainless steel milking pails at an animal feed store. He also purchased porcelain cups to use to for pour water from the buckets. These purchases not only greatly enhanced the function of mere cup and bucket, they reflected the quality of commitment and dedication Myre brought to his Hevra Kadisha.

After washing and after the taharah the body is then completely dried, as is the surrounding table. After the body has been dried the halbashah, the dressing of the body in takhrikhim, the burial shrouds, is completed. Again, the body is dressed in a specific order, and again special prayers are usually recited during the dressing. When the body is fully dressed the sovev, the sheet is placed in the casket, and then the body is placed carefully in the casket. Sherblach, pieces of broken pottery, may be placed over the eyes and mouth, earth from Israel may be placed on or around the met/metah, and a final prayer is recited. The members of the Hevra Kadisha then ask forgiveness for any indignity they may have inflicted upon the deceased. The coffin is then closed.

The actual order – washing, purification, dressing – is standard in all groups. As Shlomo noted, a respectful decorum during taharah is universally expected. “They discharged someone who constantly wanted to tell jokes.” While some groups allow minimal levels of conversation (particularly, it would seem, in the women’s Hevrot), that conversation is expected to always be appropriate and respectful. Shlomo also mentioned that most groups usually have a clearly designated leader who “calls the shots.”  Usually there are at least three to five people present.

Traditionally, family members are not present during the taharah, however several participants spoke of exceptions made to this practice. Jonathan described one moment that held a sweet poignancy for the group and for him personally. “Once we did a taharah, a guy’s son came in and wanted to be part of it. I don’t usually let that happen, but it turned out to be a profound experience. I haven’t been that close with my Dad – there are no cut and dried rules.”

Zev similarly described a break from the usual rule about family members, a break that served to accentuate the spiritual aspect of their work. “[A brother of the met] wanted to be in the room, he sang niggunim (wordless tunes, Hasidic in origin) in the room, it was real nice.” More often, however, family members are barred from participation in the taharah. This was Amos’ experience. But his need to emotionally connect with his grandfather’s death led Amos to join the Hevra Kadisha, where he, in turn, would prepare the bodies of others in his community, just as they had done for his family. Such continuity and mutual responsibility is redolent of a living Torah, a Torah where the Rabbis taught that we are to turn each page, and turn again, to more deeply understand its meaning. Similarly many participants talked about taking their turn, as had others in their family, in fulfilling this communal responsibility. One of these responsibilities has long disappeared in most communities. Most Hevra Kadisha groups order factory made takhrikhim, the mitzvah of hand sewing these garments given way to mechanization and changing priorities. But several communities continued to cherish this mitzvah. This next section will hopefully inspire others to resume this precious mitzvah, and not serve as merely archival.

Taharah: Takhrikhim

The takhrikhim are the burial shrouds. The word takhrikhim is from the root “krkh“, to wrap. They represent the garments of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the Temple. (Tripp, 1980, p.326) The garments are first described in Exodus 28 as “vestments of sanctity” for Aaron and his sons, the first Kohanim. The fabric for takhrikhim is one where the laws of shaatnez (prohibition against mixed fibers, of wool and linen or wool and cotton) do not apply. The dead are freed from all obligation to observe the mitzvot. “When a person dies, he is freed from carrying out the commandments” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Batra 17a). The laws that apply to the living therefore do not apply to the dead (Kolatch, 1993, p.35). The Zohar states that in the World to Come the righteous will be dressed in the Haluka de-Rabbanan (Robe of the Sages). “This heavenly robe is woven of the mitzvot (good deeds) that were performed by the deceased during his or her life” (Weiner, 1999, p.41). The burial shrouds worn by the physical body are the garments corresponding to this mystical garb of the soul. The fabric, always white, can be linen or cotton or a muslin/cotton blend. The garments should have no knots and neither should the thread used to stitch the garments be tied in knots.

The intertwining, fastening, and securing that knot tying implies is entirely contrary to the releasing that is a primary symbolic focus of taharah. Ancient superstitions reflected a belief that tying of knots invited difficulties and problems and should therefore be avoided. Such potential debilitation is reflected in adages such as “my stomach is in knots”, and “a knotty problem.”  Certainly the transition from this world to the next could be adversely affected by such a powerful influence. Thus knots, with their potential to adversely affect people’s lives, were forbidden to be used in any aspect of the making of burial shrouds (Kolatch, 1993, p.36).  To further aid in the propitiation of evil spirits and to also avoid the possibility that women in a state of niddah (ritual impurity due to menstruation) takhrikhim were customarily hand-sewn by post-menopausal women.

All taharah manuals provide the order for dressing the met/metah. Takhrikhim consist of several different garments. The met/metah is first garbed in a mitznefet, the headdress. This is usually a hood for men and a bonnet for women. Next to be put on are the mikhanasyim, trousers, the bottoms of which are sewn to encase the feet. The mikhanasyim are tied at the waist. Then the met/metah is dressed in a k’tonet, a long shirt with sleeves. A cloth ribbon is drawn through the neck seam and tied. The last garment is a kittel, an overshirt, which is drawn over the k’tonet. This garment is very similar to the k’tonet and is symbolic of the kittel ritually worn on Yom Kippur. It will usually have a collar, will reach down to the knees and is also tied at the neck. For the women there will usually be a masveh, a face-veil tied around the neck and sometimes an apron as well that is tied over the kittel. The avnet is a belt that is wound around the kittel and tied in the front in the shape of a shin.  Finally, strips of non-hemmed cloth are tied just below the knee for women and at the ankle for men.

The sovev is the sheet used to drape the body in the coffin. After the dressing is completed the met/metah is then laid in the casket which has been prepared with a sovev and tallit, prayer-shawl. Those who are accustomed to wearing a tallit while alive should be buried with it (Yoreh De’ah 351:2 cited by Klein, 1979, p. 277). Most observant Jewish men own their own tallit. Many women are now choosing to observe this mitzvah and may also wish to be buried with their tallit. One synagogue provided the Hevra Kadisha with old tallitot to use for burial of Jews without their own tallit. Tallitot (ritual prayer shawl) are made pasul (rendered non-kosher) by cutting a corner, cutting the tzitzit (ritual fringes) or knotting the tzitzit and then tucking them into a corner of the tallit (Gesher Hahayim 2:14; Yoreh De’ah 351:12 in Rama cited by Klein, 1979, p. 277). The cut tzitzit are placed in the foot of the aron (coffin).

The word for coffin, aron, is the same as the word used for the Holy Ark, the Aron Kodesh. It corresponds to the Holy of Holies in the First Temple, where the Ark (also Aron) with the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a Torah scroll was kept. The Ark is described in First Samuel as a simple wooden chest, occasionally carried to sites of war. At the time of the destruction of the First Temple the Ark was probably destroyed. Therefore the Second Temple could not house the Ark, but the absence of the Ark became it’s own prevailing presence. Mishnah (Yoma 5. 1-3) suggests rituals were enacted as if “the holy of holies” was present (Kaufmann, 1960, p.302). Today the “holy ark” in a synagogue houses the Torah scrolls.

The ties are never tightly knotted, but tied to easily slip free. There are varying customs about how to tie the avnet around the kittel as well as the ties over the mikhanasyim.  Most of the interviewees described their counting with letters of the alef-bet  (alef-bet-gimel-dalet) as they crossed the ties of the avnet hand over hand. Usually the two ends of the avnet are crossed over 13 times and then tied to resemble the Hebrew letter shin. But here, as with many of the customs, variations abound.  Some participants described twisting the avnet seven times, some four times. Zev also described how his group tied the hands and feet. “We would tie around the thumb and the big toe, then tie the thumb around the wrist, do the same with the big toe and the foot, and then tuck in the ends.” It is also recommended that fingers be left open and that the hands be left lying at the sides of the body, not placed over the chest. If the hands won’t open readily there is a technique that might help. Take the elbow and the wrist in hand, bend the wrist back against itself and then open up the thumb, then gradually extend the fingers. Bending the wrist back extends the tendons that may have tightened the hand allowing the fingers to open (personal communication, Zohn, Sept.11, 2000).

One man wondered why the takhrikhim included trousers for women, as most religiously observant women would not wear such attire. As noted, the takhrikhim symbolize the garments of the Kohen Gadol and as such apply to both men and women. However, differences in where the ties are wound around the trousers may serve to indicate gender differences. For men the ties are wound around the ankles to represent their shoes. But for women the ties are wound just below the knees. This tying below the knees is understood by some to represent pantaloons, long undergarments worn under a dress, an anachronistic custom specific to a particular historical period (personal communication, Zohn, September 11, 2000).

Several participants I spoke with described their commitment to continuing to make hand-sewn takhrikhim, while in two other communities the shrouds were stitched using a sewing machine. All other participants used standard factory produced takhrikhim, usually ordered through a funeral home. One sewing group, once with a membership of over 100, now consisted of six women and one man. They met once a month to hand stitch all the takhrikhim needed in their community. They usually kept one small sized shroud for children and one extra large sized shroud in stock.

The pattern used for the takhrikhim was the same for men and for women except for the mitznefet. The women’s bonnets were edged with a border of lace. The original patterns used by the sewing group had recently been redrafted by one of the members of the group to simplify the complexity of the sewing. Their commitment to hand-stitching garments otherwise so readily available commercially, again bespeaks both hiddur mitzvah and a loving and determined commitment. As one of the women said, “Those of us in it feel we’re doing a very special thing. We just do it.” Another group had also been meeting for many years. One of the women has been sewing takhrikhim for over 40 years. The group meets every week and sews over 40 sets of takhrikhim each year. In yet another community a group of women sew takhrikhim on a sewing machine. As Sarah described their group she was very matter-of-fact about the lack of necessity to still hand-sew these garments.

We don’t hand-sew, we use a machine. We don’t knot anything. We start sewing right after Pesah; there are 30-35 funerals a year. We make 60 sets. We meet every Monday morning. Everyone has a different job, the kittel, pants and shirt. The head piece covers the face, it is the same cloth as for the other garments…We have contact with the women in Calgary, they still sew by hand, but it isn’t necessary. We made our own pattern, and then did improvements. We made it larger so that it isn’t so difficult to dress. All the collars are finished, it is much nicer.

Jonathan discussed how his Hevra Kadisha had designed their own takhrikhim. Their garments are quite different from the more standard shrouds, shrouds that he described as resembling ‘Dr. Denton’s.’

We have 3 sizes, S, M, L. It was hard with the different sizes of people. Now we use a shroud that opens up in the back, like a hospital gown. It goes from the shoulders to the feet. There is a belt and a hood. The sleeves go over the hands. There is enough fabric to wrap around the feet and the hands. Then we cover with a sheet. We have a non-Jewish seamstress makes these for us, on a machine. We buy a bolt of cotton/muslin at the discount fabric house. She made up a pattern and she makes 6-8 at a time.

Keeping costs down was one factor in this Hevra’s decision to have locally-made shrouds. To some degree, this decision could be perceived as a group’s local protest against the commercialization of a particular Jewish tradition. It might demonstrate a reclaiming of a sense of community responsibility, to continue a cherished tradition. Sewing their own takhrikhim might also demonstrate the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the same concept that Myre demonstrated when he replaced worn plastic buckets with stainless steel.

The pride in the voices of those sewing these garments was very infectious. Far from being a seamstress, I found myself actually considering picking up needle and thread. However, the numbers of people (nearly all women) involved in this enterprise has decreased dramatically with the ready availability of factory made takhrikhim. Amos remembered his grandmother sewing.

Thirty to forty years ago my grandmother used to hand-sew takhrikhim. The women would come over and sew instead of drinking coffee. We have a set from 70 years ago, with hand stitched lettering, all Hebrew letters. They would be made by the women in the community.

One set of these hand-stitched takhrikhim is now considered an archival item, a cherished remnant of days past. Will this tradition survive? I have faith that hand sewing takhrikhim will continue, albeit perhaps only in a few communities. I recently had a telephone conversation with a friend who had just been invited to join the sewing group in her city. My friend is in her sixties and has waited for many years to be invited to join the group. She was very touched and thrilled to be asked to come and participate. So do the threads of tradition survive.

Specific local customs

There are many other customs associated with preparing the body after the washing, taharah and dressing of the body has been completed. Many participants were curious about the practices of other Hevra Kadisha groups, and many wanted to know more about the origin of these customs. Few people could identify in any manner the origins of any of the specific customs or rituals they used during taharah.  Some practices had originated in biblical text; others originated with kabbalistic writings, while others probably originated through local vagary. While there may be particular customs other than the following, these are the primary secondary rituals.

Covering the face

The mystics referred to the altered face of the deceased as mar’eh letusha, or a ‘hammered image’ (Lamm, 1969, p.31). While the face of the dead may still be physically recognizable, it does become only an image of what was once entirely unique and expressive. The face, as does the body, becomes a shell, hollowed of any enlivening soul. However, the soul of the met/metah is considered to still be present, hovering above the body until burial. The face covering is understood to protect the soul of the met/metah from our possible adverse reaction to such a transformation, a reaction that the mystics suggest might add even more pain to an already anguished soul. The face covering may also provide emotional protection for the Hevra Kadisha members. Rona talked about how there were two things that were still difficult for her, even after many years’ membership in the Hevra. “I try not to take down the sheet for the first time, and I don’t pour the water over the face.” The face and the eyes are considered by many societies to be a window to a person’s soul. Rona’s reluctance to literally ‘face’ such loss is understandable.

The responses from participants regarding this custom were mixed. Dov described how his group didn’t cover the face with the hood of the takhrikhim but covered the face with a tallit.  “We put on their tallis, wrap it around their shoulders, and then wrap it over their faces, over the kittel.” He hadn’t heard of any other community covering the face of the met quite like this. Amos described leaving the face uncovered, the only covering provided by the sovev, the sheet that covered the whole body in the coffin. He described how they would “extend (the sovev) about three feet above the head, and then fold it back like an envelope.” Others covered the head with a hood when dressing the body, but also covered the face during the washing.  Gershon described the reason his group had for covering the face throughout the taharah. “We cover the face to give a sense of modesty. We cover with a terry cloth towel, over the face.”

The women also had variations on head and face coverings. Hannah described her group’s methods. “We put the bonnet on, and tuck her hair in. The cloth goes over and is tied behind the neck and tied in front.” However in Malka’s community even though the head covering is put on immediately after the body is dried, “it is not tied until the sheet is draped over the coffin.” Rona described a practice that seemed to be particular to their community. “We seem to be one of the few communities that do this. We take very fine netting and cover the face, tuck it in under the bonnet and the collar of the shirt. It softens the face. The top jacket has a collar that is ruffled – it looks very feminine with the face veil. The netting is wrapped softly around the face.” None of the other participants described having such a custom.

Some women’s groups have unwittingly mistaken the head covering for an apron. Certainly the custom in our Hevra Kadisha has been to use this covering to tie around the kittel to symbolize an apron. This custom has continued for years, even over the protestations from some women that they certainly did not want to be buried wearing an apron. When I discussed this matter with Rabbi Zohn, he laughed heartily and said that the apron/face covering discussion had been going on for some time. There may also be an apron in the set of takhrikhim, but the primary purpose of the squared fabric with ties is a face covering. [22] The variety of customs regarding types of face coverings should not preclude an understanding of the relative consistency of their function. Just as we are not to close the eyes of a dying person even a moment before death, so too are we to respect the dignity of the soul of that same person, a soul reflected in their face. We are also enjoined to only stand at the sides of the body while conducting the washing and dressing. It is understood that God is present at their head and so we as their agents of transition stand at their side.


The practice of placing sherblach, shards of pottery, over the eyes of the met/metah, has its origins in Torah and in Psalms. They symbolize the earth to which the met/metah is being returned.  “For dust you are and unto dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19). Also in Psalms 103:14, “God is mindful that we are but dust” (Kolatch, 1993, p.39). The mystics were concerned that the eyes should be covered because eyes that could still look upon this world could not focus on the next. The sherblach also acted to prevent the deceased from seeing any possible misdeeds of their relatives, while fragments placed over their mouth ensured that when in the next world the met/metah would not speak ill of any person who may have insulted them (Weiner, 1999, p.48).

Another interpretation of their function is that our life in this world is seen to be as frail as the fragility of pottery (Press, 1990, p. 43). Covering the eyes also has a connection to Aaron and the Kohanim, the priests in the Temple. As the sherblach are placed over the eyes, some Hevra Kadisha members may recite “Let them not draw near to see the sanctuary being dismantled, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). The Kohanim, the priests, were responsible for setting up and covering the vessels in the sanctuary. No one else was even permitted to look at these objects, thereby protecting their sacredness (Kolatch, 1993, p.39). The sherblach and the fabric face covering thus act to protect the vision of the soul about to enter olam ha’ba and the sight of those still living in this world.  Any form of pottery can be used – broken dishes, preferably kosher, or clay flowerpots.

Only four participants described their Hevra Kadisha actually using sherblach. Myre described how they added the sherblach after the body was put into the casket; ” we put white of egg and crockery from broken dishes at the shul over the eyes.” The white of egg might have practical purpose as well as symbolic purpose, in that it might have a slightly gluing effect.  Zev also recommended putting a little Vaseline on the eyes to hold the shards in place. Tzvi remembered hearing as a child about pebbles being placed on the eyes but his group did not do this.

Reizl had a beautiful story about sherblach. Her father had Alzheimer’s disease for about ten years before he finally died. During those years whenever he forgot someone’s name or did not recognize someone he would always blame his eyes, saying, “I’ll just have to go to Rochester and get new eyes. I’m going to get blue eyes this time.” Years passed with her father increasingly often saying he was heading off to Rochester for new blue eyes. After he died, she went with her sister to see him. He was all prepared for burial, but the sherblach were missing. She asked the member of the Hevra Kadisha who was standing nearby, “what about the pottery?” He didn’t say a word, but left the room and came back with a hammer and a cup. He smashed the cup and handed a piece of the crockery to both the woman and her sister. “Finally, my father had his blue eyes, magnificent blue eyes.”

Unlike the use of sherblach, sprinkling earth in the casket was a much more universal custom. Sprinkling the earth on the met/metah and around the aron also has symbolic and mystical import. The earth used is nearly always earth imported from Israel. The earth is added to symbolically hasten the decomposition of the body, thereby reducing the “anguish suffered by the departed soul” (Weiner, 1999, p.41). Also there is a mystical belief that the souls of those who have been buried in exile, outside of Israel, must be returned to Israel before they can be resurrected. Adding soil from Israel to the aron is understood to aid in this future resurrection of the person when the time of the Mashiah (the Messiah) arrives. An early tradition, one that I believe to be now almost entirely forgotten, had members of the Hevra Kadisha place gerblakh in the hands of the met/metah. Gerblakh were small forked sticks or branches. It was thought that when the Mashiah did arrive and Jews were collectively at the point of resurrection, the righteous could tunnel and dig their way to the land of Israel with the help of the gerblakh. In the Jerusalem Talmud it is noted that Jeremiah asked to be buried not only with a wooden staff in his hands, but also to be buried upright, so that he might more readily leave his grave at the time of resurrection (Press, 1990, p. 44). However the Shulhan Arukh notes that this is a ‘foolish custom’, and adds that if this must be done, then the branch should at least be placed alongside the met/metah and not in their hands (Ganzfried, 1927, p.99).

Participants sprinkled earth in a myriad of ways. Some sprinkled it around the head. Some left the small sack of earth on top of the face. Others took the earth out of the packet and sprinkled it in various combinations of the following: a little over the cloth covering the face, over the chest, on the pillow, over the heart, eyes and genitals, and around the body but not over the head. Amos mentioned that if the Hevra Kadisha thought a family member might be viewing the body, they would not sprinkle the earth on the body. Dov’s Hevra Kadisha had a custom of not using earth from Israel but earth from their own cemetery. “We get the earth from the consecrated ground at the cemetery. We place a bag [of earth] from the actual grave of the person we are preparing, within the coffin.” This unique variation on the theme might not be sound according to kabbalistic principles, but there is a particular sweetness of connection with using such in situ earth.

Finger and toenails

There is also kabbalistic thinking about the cleaning of finger and toenails. It is thought that the nails as well as the skin beneath the nails are particularly susceptible to residual impurities, and must therefore be cleaned prior to burial (Weiner, 1999, p. 37). Most of the participants described giving a light cleaning to the nails of the met/metah. Several cut the nails and did not clean them. Nail polish was always removed. Hannah said they did neither. “Most people have died of old age, their hands are usually very clean.” Dov said they did a very superficial cleaning “more to say we’ve touched on this.”  False nails were left on. The use of toothpicks or a wooden cuticle stick (orange stick) is recommended for cleaning.

Egg/wine wash

The last custom that I asked participants to describe involved washing the hair/face with egg and wine. This is one of the more esoteric and, I discovered, contentious of customs. Eggs have an inherent connection with life force. Especially when humans are directly confronted with death, round foods like eggs, act to symbolize the eternity of life. We are thus reminded that olam ha’ba has no beginning and no end. In some communities the egg is actually beaten in its shell with shape and content indicating such life force. Use of an egg during this death-ritual may also imply that mourners should accept their loss without protest.

When Jews hear of a death it is customary to recite a blessing, the words of which end with the words “dayan ha’emet,” words that acknowledge God as the true judge of all life. As with words so too does the shape of a mere egg bear witness to the supremacy of God in matters of life and death. Talmud teaches that since lentils are round they have no ‘mouth’, which may symbolize the voiceless grief of the mourner. The lentil’s lack of a mouth is remarked upon in connection with its use as a food for mourners. While Talmud says they sit silently (specifically noting the lack of a ‘mouth’, which is also noted in reference to eggs) this silence may refer more to the mood of the mourners (Bava Batra 16b, personal communication, April 19, 2001, Mordechai Torczyner; Press, 1990, p. 83). Both lentils and eggs are commonly served as the first food eaten by mourners upon return from the cemetery.

It is thought that this custom originated as an olfactory means of identifying the corpse as Jewish. In certain circumstances bodies may have been sent to a cemetery without any written identification. To insure correct identity an egg-vinegar mixture was brushed on the heads of Jewish corpses prior to arrival at the cemetery. This strongly smelling mixture ensured correct identification and separation of Jewish from gentile corpses.

There are some Hevras that use a mixture of egg white and vinegar, applied to the forehead, which was an old way of identifying the body of a Jew, when a body had to be transported and sometimes switched by non-Jews to perpetuate a blood libel. The vinegar has a strong smell, and the egg is sticky, so by either feel or smell, Jews could tell if the body was switched (Zohn, n.d., n.p., accessed January 1, 2000)

Thus, not only could Jewish corpses be clearly identified, non-Jewish corpses, by the very absence of such an egg wash, were also identifiably not-Jews. Therefore, the potential for inflammatory charges that Jews were stealing the bodies of Christians was diminished.

Only one community continued with this particular custom. As was the case with other customs, there were a variety of attitudes towards this custom. Shlomo strongly disapproved of such a custom. “We don’t do egg white on the eye. We do a dignified taharah.” In Rona’s community however, Hevra Kadisha members combed an egg white and wine mixture  “through all the hair on the head and on the body.”

Interestingly wine was now used rather than vinegar. Egg and a few drops of wine were mixed together in the eggshell and the head, either the face or the hair, was then washed with the mixture. This mixture combined the sweetness of wine with the life-giving force of the egg, to aid the journey of the dead. The mixture is said to symbolize the wheel of fortune “that makes revolutions in this world” (Ganzfried, 1927, p.99).

I did have a conversation with one individual, who was not included in the final survey, who described washing the face of the met/metah with an egg/wine mixture. He mixed the egg and wine in the shell. He described the softness of the face after the egg was washed away and he repeated several times that the wash left the face unbelievably beautiful. Amos remembered reading about this custom, but had never included it in his community.

Aside from the basic order of washing, pouring of water and dressing the body it is clear from the variations in the practice of these customs that there is no right or wrong way to approach understanding of their function and application. Just as Hevra Kadisha groups in pre-modern Europe evolved their own local customs, so too are contemporary North American groups. There are many factors influencing a community’s choice about which customs they have incorporated into their rituals. Regardless, each participant seemed proud of how they prepared each body.  Rona remarked on how they did the best they could. “We always comment once they are in the coffin, that each person looks so peaceful. Each person has something to say, to say goodbye.” Whether wrapped in netting, or covered in a hood, whether sherblach are covering the eyes, or earth from Israel is placed in the casket, these rituals served to mark the entrance of the soul of the met/metah into olam ha’ba. These symbols also served to demarcate the world of the dead from the world of the living. And, as one man’s ‘blue eyes’ demonstrated, these rituals serve as a link between the dead and the living, between the physical and the spiritual, and between human souls and God.

Problems: practical

I asked participants about any unusual or difficult circumstances their Hevra Kadisha may have encountered. These circumstances very quickly broke down into two categories: the practical, on-the-scene difficulties encountered during the taharah, and the more long-term political problems that may have arisen within these communities. As I examine these issues I want to clarify that the opinions of these participants are their opinions alone and do not reflect any particular movement policy, although most are members of synagogues affiliated with the Conservative Movement.

During a taharah the goal at all times is to maintain a dignified and respectful environment, which may be challenging in some situations. Problems can range from unusual difficulties encountered during the taharah, such as bleeding, dealing with colostomy bags, and IV’s, wounds on the body, dealing with victims of violent death and amputation, to more mundane issues such as difficulty in removing jewelry. All participants stated that they rarely encountered problems – or at least attempted to avoid inviting problems.

Participants described most deaths as those of elderly congregants who had died natural deaths with few, if any, complications. However, even within this population problems occasionally arose. Participants also had questions about how to most appropriately proceed in certain circumstances. For example, a number of participants questioned the appropriateness of leaving on gauze bandages that might be covering bedsores. It can be entirely acceptable to leave such bandages in place because technically blood which has flowed from the body prior to death can be washed away. The difficulty, however, is that it may not always be possible to determine the precise timing of the flow of blood.

If blood flows after death, it must be stopped and the source of flow covered. Gauze bandages, even sanitary napkins can be used for this purpose. If bandages can be removed without causing bleeding they should be removed. Otherwise they should be left alone. Blood that flows from the body after death must be sopped up and the bloody cloths put into the aron with the met/metah. If there is blood on the body from when the person was still alive regular washing of the body can proceed. Problems can occur when the blood flow cannot be stopped. Hannah described such a difficulty. “Once we could not find the source of the blood. We had fabric to absorb the blood and we searched the body. I don’t remember where we found the source. All the cloth went into the coffin.” Amos had also encountered such a difficulty. “Bleeding can be a problem sometimes. Once we had someone bleeding through their nose and it wouldn’t stop.”

Occasionally bodies arrived in a condition that made the taharah very difficult.  Malka described several circumstances that were very challenging for her Hevra

A person was brought in with a large plastic cork in their anus. We didn’t know what to do. There was also a big open wound on the body; there was actually access to the internal functions. We didn’t have enough gauze to cover this incredibly large hole. The nurses and the veterans made the decision [about what to do].

Rona also encountered several difficult situations.

A friend of my daughter’s died in a car accident. There was an autopsy; her parts were buried in the aron. Once we had a situation where the organs had not been put back in after an autopsy; they hadn’t sewn the body back up. We tried not to look. We just put a towel on the body and then dressed the body.

Such situations can be very upsetting for the members of the taharah team. Advance communication ensuring that members be forewarned of potentially difficult circumstances is critically important.

The most difficult circumstances usually arose from accidents, suicides and autopsies. Sometimes the bodies were too damaged to proceed with a regular taharah. In these situations the procedures of the taharah must be limited. Gershon described how his Hevra dealt with the victim of an accident. “We considered it to be a spiritual taharah. At the beginning it was very difficult. We lay the takhrikhim over the top of the met.” Myre recounted how several times his Hevra Kadisha has also had to limit the taharah.

In the last three years we have had half a dozen times that were very hard. There have been a couple of instances where the deceased was in very bad shape – one hit by a train, one was a suicide who had jumped 15 floors. We could not do the taharah in the normal fashion. We did the prayers – we do what we can do.

Zev talked how his Hevra had dealt with a particularly horrifying suicide.

The worst was an eight-year-old child who had committed suicide. There have been some accidents. Once someone jumped 22 stories, we mopped up all the blood off the pavement. The paramedics put a plastic sheet over the body and we put the sheet in the coffin. We put the takhrikhim over the top. We used an oversize coffin, put in his tallis, and all the towels that we had used to clean up the pavement.

There are hardly words to describe the requisite fortitude and dedication to complete a taharah in such circumstances. If it is not possible to actually dress the met/metah because of extreme physical trauma, the shrouds are placed over the body in the order they would normally be dressed.

There is a custom that if a person is killed violently, particularly if he or she was killed because she was a Jew, then that person is buried as he or she was found. Sometimes we won’t even take off the victim’s clothes. The belief is that when this person appears before God in such a horrifying state, it may arouse compassion from on high and hasten the end of the exile (Zohn, n.d., n.p., accessed January 1, 2001).

The amputation of limbs also presents very particular challenges to a Hevra Kadisha. There are options for burial of limbs. If a person is about to die soon and the limb does not really need to be amputated the leader of the Hevra should press for the body to stay intact. Alternatively, if the limb is amputated but death is imminent, inquiries can be made about cold storage for the limb until death, when it can be buried with the rest of the body. If it is expected that there will be a relatively short time until death then the limb can be placed in the grave site but left relatively close to the surface so that it can be removed fairly easily. If it is clear that the time is longer between amputation and death, the limb can be buried at the gravesite but in a section where it will not be disturbed when the site is finally dug for the coffin (personal communication, Rabbi Zohn, September 11, 2000).

Zev recalled how his Hevra Kadisha had to deal with such a disinterment after amputation. The limb had been buried earlier in the cemetery. They dug up the limb from where it had been buried and then put it in the coffin. This disinterment was made even more difficult because of the opposition of the man’s wife. But the Hevra Kadisha was clear. As Zev remarked  “it had been part of his body, ” and was thus deemed necessary.

Dealing with IV tubes, colostomy and other tubes can present another type of challenge. Many of the groups had nurses and doctors on their teams whose medical background accustomed them to dealing with such circumstances.[23] But having such expertise within the community, or for any given taharah may not always be possible. Some groups had a very clear policy about these situations. Amos was very definite. “If it is easily removed, we’ll remove it, as long as it won’t cause a problem. We don’t mess with a catheter. We do the best we can without making a bigger mess.” Dov seconded this hands off policy.  “Often there are times, I’ll say, we leave that. We attempted once or twice to get rid of it, but then the fluids were draining.” Other groups resolved these sorts of problems by having all the tubes and catheters removed at the hospital before the body was transported to the funeral home.

Other challenges, especially when dealing with the elderly, included washing bedsores and touching fragile tearing skin. Shula described how they had once resolved this problem. “Once we had a lady, whose skin was tearing. Every time we touched her the skin would tear. We used liquid glue.” Oozing wounds and seepage of blood were also mentioned frequently as a difficulty. Many people were not aware of Monsel’s Solution, also known as Ferric Subsulfate Solution, a small amount of which will cause the blood to clot. Several people also mentioned that they occasionally had difficulty coping with feces. Malka noted that “we clean the rectum, but not obsessively” but she also mentioned that her Hevra occasionally resorted to stopping up the rectum with cloth. She was unsure such a measure was acceptable. If necessary such packing can certainly be used. These circumstances can be disconcerting at best, deeply unsettling at the worst. Each Hevra Kadisha should have access to information about how best to deal with such situations.

Very few of the people I interviewed had prepared a child, for which they were uniformly grateful. However, several Hevra members had had to face this terrible task. Amos discussed balancing the needs of a grieving mother against traditional custom.  “A child is the most difficult. We had a 1½ -year-old baby. The mother provided us with pajamas, and we accommodated her.” Dov described how his Hevra Kadisha had to prepare a 2 or 3-year-old child.

I was in my 20’s, I happened to be away at the time. I had the same age child. I also had around the same time a buddy of mine die. We were to take our first trip to Israel together. I had to do him; it was very hard, especially at that age. Death has a different feel – at this point in my life it’s much more part of life than it was then.

At any point in life, though, preparing a child was usually described as the worst of all possible scenarios. The emotional stresses that several participants described in this regard were very real. Participants did not describe how they dealt with their emotions after such a traumatizing taharah. While actually participating in preparing a body for burial may help alleviate feelings of loss and grief, such extreme circumstances may require more explicit de-briefing for members of the Hevra Kadisha.

Hannah discussed the emotional stress that even an expected death may bring.

“There is an upcoming funeral, an elderly woman who is near and dear to everyone. I feel very emotionally stressed – this will be the roughest one, we all love her so much.” The women in this Hevra are part of a very small tight-knit community and the loss of each person is very much felt.  But as Hannah continued to talk she realized that participating in the taharah for this much-loved friend was actually going to be the best way for her to accept her friend’s death.

While family members are not encouraged to participate in a taharah, the size of the community and the size of the Hevra Kadisha may necessitate family involvement. Shula described the tension between grief and love that may condense in such a situation.

The hardest for me is when you have loved a person so much. It grounds you, but it takes its toll. It puts everything into perspective. When my mother-in-law died it was the hardest. Two women came forward to help but they had never done it before. At one point, I was holding her and it was as if time had stopped. I looked up and the women were against the wall, crying. I have no idea how long I had been holding her.

Shula’s description of the suspension of time as she cradled her mother-in-law aptly describes a similar suspension of the soul of the met/metah at this point after death. The soul is understood to hover over the body, which is dead but not-yet-buried and members of the Hevra Kadisha are expected to exhibit respect and decorum in the presence of this soul. Just as the threads are left unknotted and the ties of the takhrikhim are tied only with a slip-knot, the ties between the material and the spiritual worlds are also unraveling. Ironically one of the challenges and one of the benefits of living in a small community are the creation of strong ties between people of all generations – ties that are then very hard to release. For these women the ritual of taharah and the support of the Hevra Kadisha made and continues to make such release easier to face.

Not all the problems the Hevra Kadisha members encountered were as emotionally trying. Sometimes just moving the body into the casket was problematic. If a body is heavy and large the members participating in the taharah may be unable to physically lift the body into the casket. Zev described a table that made this procedure much easier. “We had an actual six foot long table with handles. It was easy to get the body into the coffin. You could slide it in. The women couldn’t handle [the weight of] some of the women.” Dead weight is aptly named. If such equipment was not available and the Hevra Kadisha could not lift a body, staff at the funeral home was called in to help move the body into the coffin. 

As a side-note burial of the casket can present other complications. Zev related an incident that happened once in a northern community. The burial was held during frigid, mid-winter conditions.

It was very cold, and we had to bury someone…The hole was nine feet deep but the ropes only extended six feet.  It was so cold the plastic straps broke. The coffin dropped, and the lid fell off the coffin. We moved people away and two of us had to go down on the rope, nine feet, to put the lid back on. It was a disaster – we couldn’t get out. It was minus 40 degrees – at least we were out of the wind.

As Zev recounted this story he was laughing but the black humor of the situation demanded an obvious recommendation- don’t use plastic strapping to lower the coffin, especially in frigid conditions.

Removing jewelry over swollen fingers can be problematic. Rabbi Zohn mentioned a method for removing a ring that is stuck. The finger is soaped and then embalming cord is pulled through one end of the ring, it is wound round and round the finger and then pulled. If the knuckle is so enlarged that this method does not work then ring cutters may be used. However if this upsets the family, the ring can be left on the finger (Zohn, personal communication, September 11, 2000).

Several situations that also presented themselves in Jewish communities had only arrived relatively recently. Zev talked about how recent immigration patterns had directly affected decisions of the Hevra Kadisha.  “There was a big discussion about Russian immigrants who may not be circumcised. It was decided that if they were not, we drew a drop of blood and then put the wadding into the coffin.”  Infectious diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B have also become issues people are discussing if not confronting. Transsexed people may also provide a particular conundrum for Hevra Kadisha groups. Traditionally men prepare men’s bodies and women prepare women. But, if necessary, women may prepare the body of a man. This would be a possible solution to such a circumstance. 

Hevra Kadisha members may also encounter another procedure, that of organ donation. While the obligation is to not delay burial there is a more over-riding concern – that of saving another person’s life. The Conservative Movement in 1995 adopted the ruling of Rabbi Joseph Prouser. Rabbi Prouser noted that the failure to donate organs after death violates the commandment “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The Conservative Movement policy therefore defines organ donation as an obligation. However, there continues to be a range of opinion about organ transplants. Elliot Dorff describes organ donation in detail and discusses all aspects of such donation, from defining the moment of death, psychological factors, the issue of resurrection and donation of cadavers for scientific research (Dorff, 1998, 221-241).

One community had to deal with several situations where family members made demands on the Hevra that made members very uncomfortable. Golda recounted several situations where the family members had very different ideas from the Hevra Kadisha about what clothing was appropriate. “Once a daughter insisted on her mother’s tennis outfit being included. One old lady insisted on being dressed [in her own clothing].” These kinds of situations usually involved discussions, if not negotiations, between the Hevra Kadisha and family members, negotiations that may leave either the Hevra Kadisha or the family members unhappy.

In summary, Hevra Kadisha members encountered few problems as they proceeded with taharah. Most of the individuals they were preparing for burial were elderly and well-known members of their community, a situation that caused little concern for transmission of infection.  Growing social awareness about diseases such as HIV and AIDS was increasingly becoming cause for unease amongst members when the met/metah was unknown, and greater precautionary steps were being taken in such circumstances. Greater levels of education and communication have become crucial for Hevra Kadisha members whether they are attempting to ascertain health risks, to make necessary procedural decisions during a taharah or to inform family members about ritual matters. A forum for education and communication about Hevra Kadisha concerns is very much needed.

Perhaps a Hevra Kadisha version of the Bintel Brief might be instituted through the Internet, providing an opportunity for members of a Hevra Kadisha to both voice concerns and offer possible solutions. The Bintel Brief  (a “bundle of letters”) appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper published in New York. Bintel Brief was first featured in 1906 and continued for sixty-five years, and became an immediate success. The column gave readers an opportunity to write about their own problems as new immigrants, letters to which editor Abraham Cahan responded (Metzker, 1971, pp.7 -16). The Internet offers tremendous potential for a similar on-line service.

Even as participants expressed concern about these practical issues though, a greater degree of concern was voiced about potential, if not active, political problems. Staunching a flow of blood or deciding whether or not to remove an IV tube may look much less complicated when compared to problems of changing community mores.

Problems: political

One of the significant issues for any Hevra Kadisha today is to work out lines of authority regarding matters concerning taharah and burial.  In some communities, the rabbi is clearly in charge. In other communities, the authority of the Hevra Kadisha would appear to be primary. Differences between Jewish denominations can also lead to very real difficulties for a community Hevra Kadisha. Virtually all communities are being confronted with the results of changing allegiances and practices of individuals and Jewish movements. For example, the Reform Movement’s decision in 1983 to accept the validity of patrilineal descent is causing ripples if not waves of concern in many communities. Patrilineal descent has been deeply controversial.  While traditional Judaism recognizes as Jewish a child whose mother is Jewish, the Reform movement now also recognizes the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish, as long as the child has been raised as a Jew and has had a Jewish education.

The argument about ‘who is a Jew’ has already divided some communities, but burial of non-Jewish spouses and cremation are examples of political issues that are increasingly causing bitter divisiveness. While participants acknowledged the presence of these issues in their communities, at the same time I felt there was a sense of the politics being a “hot potato.” There was a ‘wait and see’ attitude that permeated the interviews while at the same time tensions were clearly bubbling beneath and above the surface.

While some communities were able to work successfully together on joint Hevra Kadisha committees, there was palpable strain, if not hostility, elsewhere. In one community ideological differences separated the Reform and Conservative synagogues. The Reform synagogue had refused to create a Hevra Kadisha. This decision and the ramifications thereof were causing serious fractures between individuals and between individuals and their usual denominational loyalties. Tzvi recalled a story that reflected these growing tensions.

Someone who had purchased a plot [in the Conservative cemetery, reserved for members only] but who never came to services, died. The Reform rabbi did the service. I found out the day of the service. We let that happen [the burial by the Reform rabbi in the Conservative cemetery], but this really strained relationships between us and Reform.

These feelings were somewhat appeased by a $25,000 donation the deceased had left to the Conservative cemetery.

Another community was similarly wrestling with differences between Conservative and Reform policy. Shula was very concerned to try and resolve this issue.

Members of the Temple [Reform] want to be buried as their parents did. There is just starting to be interest at the Temple. They don’t have a Hevra Kadisha. We each have our own cemetery. There is a little bit of discussion, one couple is interested. We’re trying to get them trained so that they’ll be there when their members have taharah. This is just starting.

But while Shula is attempting to find grounds of reconciliation through education about taharah, she is aware that other members of her Hevra Kadisha oppose such efforts. Death has become a partisan issue. The distinctions between denominations, if somewhat nebulous in life, may become more pronounced in death. In many communities there are separate cemeteries for Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews.

As Amos remarked,

There are very political questions with Reform. We try to avoid doing a Conservative taharah for someone who will be buried in the Reform cemetery. It is coming soon, we need to get the cemetery committee together and discuss it. I don’t mind bending; I’ll compromise to some degree. 

But compromise on one issue does not necessarily lead to compromise on others. And the degrees of compromise are not usually 180. In some communities there is only one cemetery. Decisions will have to be made about who will be buried where. The discussion about these decisions is just beginning in most small communities. Too often, even in many communities, it would seem, a Jew is no longer just a Jew.

Cremation and burial of non-Jewish spouses were very much on the minds of many participants. In one community, the issue of cremation had been somewhat resolved. Gershon described a pragmatic and workable approach that his Hevra Kadisha has developed in response to denominational differences.

Our problems are about how to come up with a formula that works for all three movements – Renewal, Reform and Conservative. It is resolved now by simply saying that we provide this service. If anyone is comfortable they will do taharah before cremation. If not, they don’t participate.

However in other communities cremation was a more problematic issue. Rona was very clear there could be little compromise about cremation.  “If there is a cremation, we don’t do taharah. [Recently} a husband got permission from a rabbi that if someone had a plot and wanted to be cremated, their ashes could be buried in the cemetery – but with no Jewish involvement.” In another community the matter was not so much between Reform and Conservative but that of incorrect and misleading information given to family members by a funeral home.

There was another hideous experience. The parents were visiting… The father had gone swimming and never came home. He died of a heart attack in the water. Finally the police were called, but he had already been taken to the funeral home. The first thing they did was embalm him. They [the family] were told it was state law. And then, lo and behold, they had him cremated. The whole thing was a nightmare.

While relations between the Hevra Kadisha and the funeral home had been very cordial such presumption caused a serious emotional strain. In yet another community Jonathan described how a different approach has been taken. “As far as cremation, both rabbis had the opinion that the taharah should take place, even if the family wanted cremation, just in case the family might change its mind.” The fact that such a change-of-mind has only rarely taken place has not prevented the Hevra Kadisha from continuing with this open-door policy.

However it seemed to be the issue of burying non-Jewish spouses in Jewish cemeteries that was looming the largest in the minds of most participants.  One of the primary sources of this problem is the decision of the Reform movement to acknowledge patrilineal descent. Other movements which only acknowledge matrilineal descent or official rabbinical conversion may find themselves confronting the question of  ‘who is a Jew?’ In a ritual such as taharah, traditionally the domain only of Jews, these definitions and distinctions could become very problematic. Someone who is born of a Jewish father, raised in a Reform synagogue could marry another Jew, and then decide to join a Conservative synagogue. If this member dies can s/he be buried with taharah? Shula offered a very personal example of how this issue was affecting her own family.  “The issue of non-Jews is going to come up on everyone’s agenda. My sister married a non-Jew – they bought memberships at the {Reform}Temple. He was Catholic and there they could be buried side-by-side.”  As it was they tried to buy plots that abutted the Conservative cemetery. By doing so the sister could be buried next to her husband but also on the fence-line next to the exclusively Jewish cemetery.

Jonathan discussed a generalized loss of connection to tradition that colors the lives of many liberal Jews. He talked about how he meets Jews all the time who don’t know about taharah or the Hevra Kadisha or who “think it’s the Orthodox way of dying. It’s not, it’s the Jewish way.” However, the very primal nature of death often brings a call of return with it. As swallows return to Capistrano, as salmon migrate thousands of miles to spawn in the very beds of gravel in which they found life, [24] so too do Jews often return to ancestral tradition, however furtively or perplexedly. The fact that some Reform Jews are leaving their Temple policy behind, and are surreptitiously making arrangements to have a Conservative taharah prior to burial strikes me as both sad and hopeful. The Reform Jews who were crossing the road from their Temple to the Conservative shul perhaps embodied an aspect of return, of teshuvah. It remains to be seen if their numbers grow to the point of influencing Reform policy.

Other Jews would appear to want taharah as only a marginal recognition of their heritage. For example, Amos described one family who knew enough about the tradition to at least approach the Hevra Kadisha. “They weren’t members, they were never religious. The father died and they wanted the Hevra Kadisha. We said that’s fine, but then they tell us they’re going to bury him in a Catholic cemetery. We’re not comfortable with that.” Choices multiply: Full traditional taharah with takhrikhim and Jewish burial; taharah but non-Jewish burial; no taharah but burial of non-Jewish spouse in Jewish cemetery.  Hevra Kadisha groups and their communities must continue to wrestle with defining which ‘package’ is within their definition of acceptability.

Those Jews who have chosen inter-marriage may choose to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, even if such a choice means ultimate separation from their life partner. Shula told a story of such a return.

Once a survivor was married to a non-Jew. He became ill, and stopped coming to synagogue. When he died he was no longer a member, but we did taharah, and buried him in the cemetery. His wife said, ‘I had him in life, he needs to be with his people in death.’

While some Jews may question this man’s choice to not be with his people in life, the poignancy of his return cannot be lost.

There are other social factors contributing to the over-all politics of Hevra Kadisha.  As I stated earlier, when I asked participants about membership in their Hevra Kadisha, many replied that prospective members needed to be Jewish. In many of these small communities rates of inter-marriage are very high. Inter-marriage does not necessarily mean the Jewish partner is lost to Jewish community. Certainly in my synagogue there have been significant contributions of time and energy to various committees made by intermarried Jews and by non-Jews married to Jewish members. However only Jews are members of the synagogue, have voting privileges, and can be buried in the cemetery. In such circumstances a clear distinguishing of different rights and responsibilities between Jew and non-Jew is getting to be more politically problematic.

Such separation between people is perceived by many to be a potentially divisive political issue. Involvement in Jewish ritual has become blurred by divided family loyalties, an over-all social ethic of equality between all peoples and a generalized principle of inclusiveness. I suggest that such social mores have become increasingly politicized and thus act to complicate the politics of Jewish identity.  As rates of intermarriage increase, and Jewish religious observance decreases, a merging of identity if not practice between Jew and non-Jew may also become more evident. The geographical proximity and close social relationships between Jews and non-Jews may even lead to well meaning but incongruous merging of customs. [25]

Many Jews have become alarmed by shifts and changes in ritual and custom, but such shifts are not confined to Jews only. While it may also seem that non-Jewish customs are infiltrating Jewish funerals, for example having the coffins open for family viewing, non-Jewish funeral customs are also changing.

The rise in cremation, the drop in attendance at funerals, the increased personalization of funeral services, the softening of zeal for religious rituals, the increase in more festive “memorial services,” the decreasing concern for a “viewing,” the appearance of “memory tables” displaying photos and artifacts, the use of personalized videos in funerals, the reversal of the customary sanctuary to cemetery progression–these and other trends are signs that the traditional American funeral is in radical transition (Huntington and Metcalf, 1/10, 2001, n.p.) .

As Huntington and Metcalf describe the ‘personalizing’ trends in funeral custom they are also describing an increasing tendency to individualize death, whereas traditional funeral ritual placed death squarely within the realm of community. Sadly and ironically, such ‘personalization’ may have the consequence of actually creating a greater sense of depersonalization, of disconnection. Given the decrease in other culture’s funeral customs, Jews are probably not losing their attachment to traditional burial ritual out of proportion with the non-Jewish population. However, this does not mean that Jews can afford to be unconcerned about the survival of these traditional rituals. Active leadership is needed. Active learning about the meaning and content of these rituals can best support this leadership. 

Providing relevant and participatory educational materials is an essential and necessary form of leadership. These customs and rituals will only survive the degree of assimilation experienced in small communities, if there is a much greater level of attention paid to education and communication systems. Perhaps, with such help Jews in small communities will be able to lead the way in both preserving and adapting these customs to the realities of life in the 21st century. Rabbis must be trained as well as members of Jewish communities. In this next section I will discuss how participants viewed the role of their rabbi, and how a rabbi may demonstrate valuable leadership in their community.


In small, often isolated communities, such leadership is perhaps even more essential than in urban centers where there are greater opportunities for outside consultation. There are often no other rabbis or other Hevra Kadisha groups for members to consult with. I asked participants how they made necessary decisions. What was the consulting process they used?

Several participants discussed the involvement or lack thereof of a rabbi in their community. Ironically, the absence of a rabbi was perceived by Rona to allow a kind of backhanded control in her community. “We do things differently in a small town. Nobody is so religious, and we don’t have a rabbi. The question is more – are we going to do this before supper or after supper?” One community with a significant Hevra Kadisha membership definitely counted education about this mitzvah as a primary value. Yet, at the same time Jonathan expressed his frustration about his perception of a lack of active pursuit of such education by the community rabbis.

In my experience though, most rabbis are not as informed about death and dying as they are about other aspects of life. But they will usually find out and come back with an answer. But I have been after the rabbis to do an educational process in the community – I got tired of waiting. We’re doing our own.

Other participants also expressed their opinion that the rabbis were not well trained about Hevra Kadisha and taharah. Rabbi or no, however, education about the Hevra Kadisha was widely acknowledged as critical to its continued presence.  Jonathan’s Hevra Kadisha used several methods of educating Jews about these rituals, including a monthly column in a newsletter.

Many small communities do have a rabbi. In Canada the situation is more difficult. Some communities have not had a regular rabbi for a significant number of years, and have been making do with visiting rabbis. Several participants were very comfortable with the role their rabbi played vis-à-vis the Hevra Kadisha. Myre discussed how his group was very comfortable with their rabbi’s leadership. “We check with the rabbi first, to find out exactly what we should do. We have sought advice prior to a taharah, when it seems difficult to complete a full taharah.” Rabbis may move to a new community and change or confirm familiar procedures. Shula described how her rabbi moved to his new community little realizing into what he was moving.

The rabbi had to learn. He knew academically, but he had no understanding of the heart. When we first hired him, we said ‘We need you to work with us.’ He’s listening, and then he says, ‘Ladies, I’m just out of rabbinical school, I don’t have a degree in social work, I’m not a psychiatrist’. We just said, ‘Oh yes you are. Families need you.’

This rabbi now is very involved in the Hevra, usually participating in the taharot, and often teaching about the merits of these rituals.

Other people were less enamored of the role of the rabbi. Shlomo was very protective of the prerogatives of his Hevra Kadisha, and somewhat disdainful of the rabbis that had crossed his path.

We try to stay away from the rabbis as much as possible. Rabbis come and rabbis go, but the Hevra Kadisha will always be here… We had a Conservative rabbi who didn’t want earth to be shoveled on the coffin – he said it would be too hard on the family. But I said this is the way it is and this is the way it is going to be.

It was not only the Conservative rabbi who Shlomo felt obliged to put in place. In this same community, a very significant businessman who happened to be Orthodox had died. With relish Shlomo told the story of his encounter with another rabbi.

The Habad [Lubavitch] rabbi phoned me, the papa had died. There were four sons; they were all standing in a line, being shomer at the hospital. [The Habad rabbi said to Shlomo] ‘I know you would like to do the taharah, but we will do it’. They were all scholars. [Such a statement implied the rabbi considered their learning to outrank the experience of the members of the Hevra Kadisha.] Shlomo continued. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but the Hevra Kadisha will do it in dignity and I hung up the phone. The phone rang again, [the Habad rabbi said] ‘I would consider it an honor to observe’. I said ‘You will not be there, our boys are going to do it’.

Shlomo was insistent that the members of his Hevra Kadisha, men he had worked with for over forty years, were far more authoritative about taharah than any rabbi could be, no matter their denomination.

Zev also expressed concern about how “the rabbis are very touchy. We used to have one rabbi who used to come around all the time.” Clearly, Zev felt the rabbi did not trust the Hevra Kadisha members to properly conduct a taharah without rabbinical supervision. Issues of seniority, of personality and of turf can complicate the relationship between rabbi and Hevra Kadisha members. While some participants welcomed the sincerity and commitment of their rabbi, others considered the rabbis to be relatively uninformed and thus superfluous to the roles and responsibilities of the Hevra Kadisha.

Dov lives in a community without a rabbi. He discussed how he had had many questions about taharah over the years. He would often ask visiting rabbis if they could help with his questions.

Usually the rabbis are not very well informed in this area. The rabbis say they know, but they don’t know. We respect the traditions within the communities. Some rules some rabbis want to stick to – it is never the same. Sometimes we’ll have a visiting rabbi who will be surprised at some of the things we do…I may ask the visiting rabbi. I never felt satisfied; they are not involved in the Hevra Kadisha… I don’t worry about doing anything wrong. I’ve asked three rabbis, and they all gave different answers.

Dov, as a result of such rabbinical inconsistency, is much more comfortable with his personal leadership role in his community. When confronted with a problematic situation, one requiring a quick decision, Dov said,  “We use our own judgment. If you’re right in the situation you have to. I’m the guy they’re going to turn to.”

Leadership from individuals within the Hevra Kadisha may arise through several channels, channels that often merge. Several individuals discussed their leadership role in the Hevra originating out of necessity because of their not having a rabbi to consult. Others, with or without a rabbi present, mentioned their sense of authority was developed by virtue of experience. As Shlomo clearly stated, “we try not to consult rabbis…we make decisions ourselves, we discuss it an awful lot”, but ultimately “the chairman calls the shots.” Again, Zev stated that they might consult a rabbi if he was there, but basically “we made decisions on our own. We would consult with whoever was running it.” The political and communal powers of the Hevra Kadisha, so common in pre-modern Europe, appeared, in part, to continue to be present today.

Jonathan highly valued the co-operative nature within his Hevra Kadisha and acknowledged how the two rabbis in his community were “working to bring the communities together – there has always been a split.” Rabbis are very influential in setting the tone for a community, whether it be one of seeking respect and accord for other cultural traditions or teaching about their own Jewish traditions. Amos described the tremendous contribution his rabbi has made within the synagogue.

We have a dynamic rabbi – he’s a great motivator. This [Hevra Kadisha] is very important to him. He puts a lot of personal interest in this. When some rabbis would talk about Israel – in prime time – he has promoted the Hevra Kadisha. This rabbi almost insists on participating in the taharah…He is definitely a teaching rabbi…He has always been very respectful. He has increased his level of seriousness about the job and that’s good. There are different levels of seriousness. We don’t chat like they might have at one time.

This same rabbi once taught about the Hevra Kadisha during a Yom Tov service. Shula described how he illustrated his speech by describing and holding up the takhrikhim piece by piece. “He wept through part of it, you could have heard a heartbeat. Then he went into Yizkor.” Yizkor is a memorial service held on Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Yom Kippur, to honor the memory of the dead. The emotional and educational value of such a heartfelt and explicit presentation cannot be underestimated. Hannah expressed her gratitude for her rabbi and the tremendous support that he provided to her and other members of their Hevra Kadisha. “The first couple of times he sat outside the door in case there were any questions, he was very supportive…He keeps me going.” Such personal commitment from a rabbi to both learning and teaching about taharah can only enhance the commitment of the general membership to these rituals.

The Hevra Kadisha itself may provide leadership within the community. Gershon gave a wonderful testimonial to the potential capacity of the Hevra Kadisha for communal leadership.

It is a community Hevra. We have members from Jewish Renewal, unaffiliated, Conservative and Reform as well…We work very well together…We are opening our first JCC and I think the energy from the Hevra Kadisha is lubricating the process of working together.

This kind of Jewish ecumenicism was also found in another community. Jonathan described the waves of connection he saw emanating form his Hevra Kadisha.

The Hevra Kadisha oversees all communities; it serves both communities and the non-affiliated…we need a national directory, a link…especially with the Hevra Kadisha this applies. The Hevra Kadisha has no boundaries; it takes the responsibility for the community to bury its dead. It is way past political differences.

In the minds and experience of these individuals the Hevra Kadisha has, and continues to play a very influential leadership role. The quality of leadership necessary at this juncture in history is critically important. Leadership is much bigger than setting an agenda, or chairing meetings. “Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do” (DePree, 1989, p.148). Perhaps now, more than ever, the Hevra, the group that prepares the dead, has the potential to remind living Jews of their covenental relationship with God. Torah was not given only to Orthodox Jews, nor was it given only to Conservative or Reform Jews. As Jews we are all in a Covenant with God.  So, too, are we in a covenant with each other.

One rabbi with whom I spoke sighed when I told him about the several communities I had contacted where this spirit of mutual respect was thriving. This certainly had not been his experience. He was unable to convince members of his Conservative synagogue to even establish a Hevra Kadisha and was amazed to hear about small Conservative communities maintaining such regard and respect for these traditions. He sounded positively wistful when I described these communities working together. Such a spirit of co-operation is not always the hallmark of Jewish communities. Jonathan had a small business selling kosher caskets. He talked about his relationship with the Orthodox community.

I don’t sell to the Orthodox community, I’m not [considered] Orthodox enough. I’ve been told that they’d rather buy from a non-Jew than from me. I’m not Orthodox – I’m a Jew. One rabbi even said to me ‘Near kosher is good enough.’

That this statement was made to a man who had worked very hard in his own community to straddle denominational fences was particularly hard for him to accept.

Leadership about these rituals can also come in ways unexpected and profound. Such leadership may come from individuals who may be neither rabbi nor member of the Hevra Kadisha. Shula, a member of her state’s Holocaust Commission compassionately recounted a particularly moving leadership challenge.

One survivor approached us with a brass plaque that he had had made. It was round, and was inscribed ‘Holocaust Survivor’, and had a circle of barbed wire around it. He said, ‘My family has struggled with it. But I’ve decided. We can’t let the rain wash the dust away’. We’re thinking about making it available to other survivors.

This one man’s commitment to keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, even in death, is remarkable. Shula and I discussed recent acts of anti-Semitism, the seemingly routine continuation of desecration of Jewish graves and marveled together at this singular act of courage. She was hoping that the idea of installing similar memorials on the graves of other survivors would take hold on a state basis, if not beyond.

Finally, one significant aspect of leadership that may emerge from the Hevra Kadisha is a renewed commitment to more learning. Both Shula and her husband lost a parent within a six-month period of time. Shula was determined to remember them through an increased commitment to Jewish learning.

This is something you should do. You should do what you can do. It is very meaningful. After our parents died, the rabbi said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘We want to study’. He just had a new baby, they were busy. He said, I can’t. And then later he asked again, ‘What can we do?’ I said again, ‘We want to study.’ ‘All right, he said, we’re going to study.’ We studied every Tuesday for two years, and then all six of us, all women, close friends, had a Bat Mitzvah. We led the whole service, chanted the haftarah  [the weekly reading from the Prophets]. During the procession the excitement and tears was so wonderful, just to see these women. I find that we do a little of the things we have wanted when we cross that threshold.

Thus a parent’s death was transformed into a legacy of learning and a sharing of that commitment to learning with the whole congregation. Leadership and learning became inextricable. Achieving this connection between idea and experience, between study and mitzvah, between life and death is, ultimately, the goal of the Hevra Kadisha.

Study conclusions: “We do the best we can.”

I was very privileged to talk with the participants in this survey. They shared their commitment and thoughtfulness with an intimacy that was both unexpected and awe-inspiring. I am deeply grateful to each person who helped me create this description of the work of present-day Hevra Kadisha groups. Each of these individuals in their small communities provides a beacon of dedication to their own community, while these small community Hevra Kadisha groups serve as a beacon of possibility to their more urban neighbors. So too can this mitzvah of taharah and of maintaining a Hevra Kadisha provide a beacon of inspiration for Jews to consider and re-consider ritual observance.

The mitzvot are a Jewish eco-system. Each mitzvah connects us to each other, to our community, and to God. The intent of each mitzvah is part of a larger wholeness of connection, just as this wholeness reflects through each particular mitzvah. In many small communities the Hevra Kadisha and the mitzvah of taharah is not yet on the endangered list. Such tenacious survival may provide hope and serve as an example to other communities where ties to this ritual have been severed. Participants often spoke of how their commitment to the Hevra Kadisha provided important leadership in their communities, engaging members of different synagogues in work that superseded all denominational differences. They spoke of how this work encouraged greater levels of their own personal observance. In ways large and small the Hevra Kadisha continues to play a vital role in many small communities. The carefully chosen and eloquent words of these participants are ample testimony to the necessity for the survival and the revival of this mitzvah.

The theme of this chapter and of this ritual is characterized by the same words. “We do the best we can.” Each participant eloquently described the blessings and the challenges of continuing to provide these rituals in their communities. For some their commitment spanned decades, for some, only a few years. Nonetheless, all expressed profound regard for the ritual of taharah and for the work of the Hevra Kadisha. Death truly is a part of life. Participants all expressed how these rituals enabled them to embrace life more fully, to directly experience the sanctity of life, even as they prepared the dead for burial. Occasionally bitter, sometimes worried about what the future held, their overall optimism shone through each interview. These stories and the many others yet untold, are, I believe, profoundly important to each of us.

These stories are the stories of our survival. There are stories within stories. There were moments of courage colored in anguish. There was perseverance and stamina. There was humor. And, as Malka carefully considered, there were moments of deep reflection.

I think you only know what the Hevra Kadisha means after you have done it. First you do and then you understand. It is a living thing, based on experience. It is the stuff you cannot tell people.

Although these individuals have talked about what these rituals mean, and how they are done, there is much more to tell. My hope is that this telling will encourage others to step in and consider joining their hands to the hands of those who have come before, and to thereby understand within their hearts the true meaning of hesed shel emet.

Study recommendations

I have developed three primary recommendations as a result of my research. First, more research about this topic is needed from both an historical and contemporary perspective and channels need to be opened up to the larger Jewish world so this information can be more readily shared. Many participants talked to me about their frustration with trying to find anything beyond a basic description of procedures.

Participants also expressed envy that I was able to afford extended time in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, an opportunity which gave me time and access to the historical and contemporary research that has been completed. Effecting such a flow and exchange of scholarship will act to bolster and encourage new scholarship. Future research is essential to further describe patterns of membership and nuance of custom that have developed in small and large Jewish communities in North America.

Second, all Jewish communities, but particularly the smaller, more isolated communities need greater opportunities for education about Hevra Kadisha and taharah. Greater availability of relevant reading materials is essential. This includes publishing and distributing taharah manuals that meet the needs of changing Jewish communities, as well as greater access to affordable workshops. How is it that the Conservative Movement has never sponsored a conference about Hevra Kadisha, bringing together members from across Canada and the United States to share their skills and knowledge? We cannot leave this work of educating individuals and congregations to the Orthodox alone. To this end I recommend the Conservative Movement publish a manual that addresses the concerns stated by participants. It should include Hebrew in clear and adequately sized print, with full transliteration of all prayers written in both masculine and feminine forms. The manual should include descriptions and diagrams of procedures – if not photographs. The manual should also provide some background to the history and variety of customs used during taharah.

Education is also important for rabbis who will be serving congregations. Rabbis also need educational resources to be developed so that they are able to work with congregants and Hevra Kadisha members in an instructive and respectful manner.

Third, and underlying these first two recommendations, is the need for better systems of communication. Communication is central to the effective continuation of this tradition. Communication between Hevra Kadisha members and funeral homes, between Hevra Kadisha groups and hospitals, nursing homes, and coroners, and between Hevra Kadisha and family members. There needs to be improved teaching and communication between rabbinical leadership and Hevra Kadisha leadership.  There also needs to be improved levels of dialogue between synagogues within a community, between the Conservative Movement and its membership and between the denominations within Judaism. Inter-denominational conferences, hands-on workshops, and printed materials will all help in these processes of improving lines of communication.

My interviews with people actively involved in their Hevra Kadisha groups only confirmed the need for these recommendations. Education and support of those efforts must become primary goals. Several individuals spoke about their desire for a national network of Hevra Kadisha groups so that they could learn from each other. Support, financial and otherwise, for this network is crucial. The Internet offers opportunities for connection that exceed the imaginations of our ancestors. The beginnings of such a network have been created with ‘Kavod v’Nichum’, the on-line Hevra Kadisha organization based in Washington D.C. and at many other Internet sites. But on-line is not hands-on. Formal in-person training programs need to be developed and supported.

Secondary recommendations

During the course of my research participants discussed specific insights that would be useful for all Hevra Kadisha groups to incorporate into their practice.

Educate within congregations about gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness, to encourage participation by all members, including the young.

Create a library of existing materials about Hevra Kadisha. Encourage members to read and discuss.

Create regular opportunities for training and up-grading skills of members.

Write a regular column about the work of Hevra Kadisha in synagogue newsletter.

Encourage medical professionals to meet with Hevra Kadisha members to discuss safety issues: hepatitis, HIV, AIDS. Discuss Hepatitis B inoculations.

All information about procedures for contacting funeral homes, families, coroner should be in a written file, and shared by several members.

Hold a workshop for congregation members who are caregivers and/or who have elderly parents. Help members anticipate what they will happen after death.

Meet with local funeral home directors routinely to discuss needs and practice of Hevra Kadisha. Clarify responsibilities. Meet with funeral home directors immediately if any problems occur.

Arrange for a senior member of the Hevra Kadisha to meet with the local coroner to explain Jewish customs, ritual and expectations vis-à-vis autopsy.

Prepare written materials for all professional medical organizations, nursing homes and hospitals providing information about preferred procedures about potential amputation and procedures for handling a Jewish body after death. 

Insist that members are adequately forewarned if the taharah will be difficult.

Plasticize pages of manual.

Purchase Monsel’s Solution, Ferric Subsulfate Solution.

Begin a sewing circle to hand-stitch takhrikhim.

I will be sending a copy of this thesis to each participating community and will have also printed several copies for our local Hevra Kadisha group. I am also working on a prototype of a Hevra Kadisha manual which I think will make a valuable contribution to the understanding about practices that is missing from most manuals in use today. Each participating community will also be sent a copy of this manual when it is completed.  It is my hope to publish it with the assistance of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Based on my research I have also detailed a plan for a workshop about taharah for Hevra Kadisha members. This workshop will emphasize techniques to better enable a dignified taharah, and teach some of the background to the ritual and customs used. I am also planning to publish a book based on this and future research. All of these recommendations will act to increase the understanding, awareness and education of all concerned about the duties and practices of the Hevra Kadisha.


Organization Implementation

“Often the results of applied research require an organization to undertake changes within the organization. This section should provide a description of the implementation process [in own organization] and its implications if the changes are not undertaken.” (Major project procedural manual, RRU MALT Program)

I asked participants in this study to send me a copy of the taharah manual that they used. It became clear that the manual we were using in Victoria was significantly different in content and form from these other manuals. I had always found the manual disorganized, the instructions difficult to follow and the format (plasticized sheets of paper hanging from a ring) frustratingly inadequate. It also became clear that the prayers in the manual we were using were not only abbreviated, there were considerably fewer prayers than in virtually all other manuals.

I was very interested to see these manuals, as I was convinced at the onset of my research that there had to be more complete and functional manuals in existence. My plan is to create a manual based in part on my literature research, in part on information from the manuals provided to me and in part from interviews with participants in this study.

I am aware that the extent and length of the prayers may intimidate some individuals in our Hevra Kadisha. I will be meeting with representatives of both the men’s and the women’s groups in Victoria, and will initiate focus groups to discuss if, why, how, and when we should adjust our practices. I have also asked that one individual (who moved here after being a member of a Hevra in another larger community) to demonstrate particular procedures during the halbashah, the dressing, to better enable understanding about how to dress the met/metah more effectively and with greater dignity. I have asked another individual to give a short workshop on tying knots, as there is a very particular requirement for the knot to be able to slip and to take a particular shape.

I am very aware that certain procedures and protocols have become very familiar to members of the Hevra Kadisha. I am also aware of how powerful the resistance to change can be. However the members of the women’s group have expressed an eager willingness to learn about new methods and new understandings for applying these techniques. It is my hope that their leadership will encourage the men’s Hevra to also actively pursue a shift in their practices. There are many levels of change that I would like to introduce to our practice. I believe if we approach these changes slowly, methodically, and with adequate information to support such changes, the implementation of these changes will be successful.

What are the implications for the Hevra Kadisha if these changes are not implemented? We can certainly continue on as we have for the past eighteen years. “We do the best we can” here as well. However it is my hope that members will become aware of other customs and other procedures through these educational efforts and will want to participate in refining their practice.

Future research

“Research does not stand alone. Researchers should describe the implications of their research results on the body of knowledge being studied.”

I believe publication of this thesis and subsequent publication of a manual will be of significant importance. There is very little published research about the practices of contemporary Hevra Kadisha groups. There are a number of Internet sites devoted to this topic but few offer more than the briefest of descriptions of procedure. The literature I was able to find and synthesize will enable interested individuals to deepen their knowledge. The literature review and bibliography certainly will alert them to the literature that is available. Unfortunately most of the theses which did address the topic of Hevra Kadisha are not available in book form. I intend to continue my research and then publish a book on practices of Hevra Kadisha groups.

It is my hope that I will also be able to develop collaborative research projects. I have tentatively discussed the possibility of publishing a cross-cultural comparison of Jewish and Islamic burial rituals with a Muslim woman. She is actively involved in her “burial society.” The rituals for preparation of bodies for burial are fascinatingly similar. I am also very interested in working with a documentary film company to record the work being done by Hevra Kadisha groups. I am particularly interested in recording the work done by groups still committed to hand-sewing takhrikhim. I have discussed both of these projects with David Zinner (organizer and founding member of Kavod v’Nichum), and continue to be in contact with him. I will eventually be making my research available through the Kavod v’Nichum Web-site and educational group, which is committed to actively supporting education of Hevra Kadisha groups.

Project deliverables

Each participating community will receive a copy of this thesis and of a manual when it is ready for publication. There is one manual that has been recently published (Kelman, 2000) that has all prayers in Hebrew, English and transliterated Hebrew. In many respects it is an excellent manual, but there are several areas that I would like to improve upon. Based on interviews and personal experience an ideal manual should be printed in a larger format (Kelman’s booklet is 5 ½ by 8 ½). Many participants asked for large and clear print. I think the binding is also an important consideration if the manual is to be functionally useful. A sirlox binding allows the manual to lie flat on a table. Such a binding also allows for each page to be plasticised, an important consideration when used with wet hands.

I gave a presentation about my research to the Victoria Hevra Kadisha, the Cemetery committee and the Board of Congregation Emanu-El and interested members of the Victoria Jewish community on March 1st 2001. This thesis will also be used in part at the Jewish Theological Seminary as part of the course materials reviewed in the lifecycles training course in the rabbinical program.


Review of research project

“Researchers should review the conduct and management of their applied research project and identify what they could have done better or what processes require change. The aim is to help future researchers avoid similar pitfalls.”

At times, when my floor was covered in reams of papers and my desk was piled high with various reference texts, I had to re-think my self-image as an efficient and organized person. I tried various systems for managing information. I tried storing information on the computer but found that my ability to retrieve it easily was still frustrated by my inability to completely understand its capabilities and functions. I tried storing information on file cards but found I had too many categories and too many cross-references to adequately track the information on the cards. I was also spending many hours writing quotations and bits of information on cards but then having difficulty accessing the information.

I had copied many pages from journals, books and theses while I was researching the literature New York. Once home, on several occasions I realized I had insufficiently notated significant bibliographic information. I also discovered that some of my copying had cut off page numbers, necessary information when citing the text. I realized that if I were to do this again I would double-check all these details.

Dealing with the sheer bulk of all this paperwork was an organizing challenge. I organized and re-organized these articles until I was satisfied I had the basic categories I wanted. I then had to re-read and re-sort within each category to create an order for the discussion of each category, while weaving in information from other sources (my own library, conversations, lecture notes). I tried highlighting relevant information with pens, I tried post-it notes, but finally I just waded through each paper and pulled out the information I thought most essential to my research.

One of my biggest challenges was managing the size of this paper. Wheatley’s (1994) discussion of the inter-connectedness of life certainly seemed applicable throughout my writing as I attempted to incorporate far more than I could adequately deal with in one paper. A significant challenge during the writing was keeping my perspective about the volume of content.  I also found it difficult to stay focused on the whole of the text while also focusing on necessary details. I felt inadequately prepared to maintain my train of thought for such an extensive piece of writing. As a result, sections of my work became repetitious. I came away from this experience believing more training about information management for research projects is essential. A methodology course teaching the details of efficient management of volumes of information could better enhance the success of students in the MALT program.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of properly recording interviews as immediately as possible. The voices of participants would stay in my head for hours – I could recall turns of phrases, inflections of tone, but on several occasions I delayed such recording and then regretted my delay. I am not as expert on the computer as many – though my skills far exceed what they were. When it came time for me to sort the interviews into categories I was faced with a challenge. I knew there were computer programs that could help sort and categorize this information. But I decided that the challenge of sorting it myself was more manageable than learning a new computer program. In fact sorting, re-sorting, and re-sorting again through the interviews enabled me to become very familiar with the content of the interviews. Also, while searching for references in one category I would often find passing references to another category that I had missed when initially looking. These obliquely found sections of the interviews often contained a missing and vital piece of information.

I was very pleased with the results of the telephone interviews. Conversations with participants enabled me to follow through more completely with a question, to follow a thread offered by the participant and to create a sense of shared passion for this topic. I was usually able to feel a solid sense of connection with each person as the interview progressed. In many ways I was restricted in the interview by not being able to observe body language or nuances of facial expression. However this limitation also worked in our favor. Interestingly, I think the phone also gave a reasonable sense of privacy for me and for those interviewed. They were not distracted by my note taking and could freely follow their train of thought, and I was not distracted by any physical discomfort. I also tried to complete the interviews within a two-week period and I think this timing gave a quality of consistency to the interviews.

Conduct and management of project: MALT competencies

“Finally, graduate candidates should review the successful completion of the project with the MALT program competencies. They should identify what competencies they believe they have mastered, and which competencies they must strengthen in future studies.”

1 c. Provide leadership

A valued aspect of leadership is communication and connection with people. Leadership in many ways is creating a sense of group leadership and not singular, charismatic leadership. Samuals and Aron identified four aspects of leadership.

  • Adjusting to the change in roles
  • The need for communication
  • An awareness of strengths and limitations
  • The evolution of a shared vision

(Samuals & Aron, 1999, p.28). As I planned, entered into, and then completed this phase of my research I attempted to incorporate and document each aspect of these components of shared leadership.

I believe I was able to communicate my passion and commitment to this research and its outcomes as I interviewed each participant. Each person expressed his or her own excitement about this research, and was especially pleased with my stated goal of sharing all information to the greatest degree possible. I believe I developed a sense of mutual respect by sincerely valuing each participant’s personal expertise as they shared their experiences with me. I felt it incumbent upon myself to accurately evaluate and present the content of these interviews, a challenge I believe I have met. It was only with the participation of these committed Hevra Kadisha members that these leadership goals have been met.

  • I was able to describe the shifts and changes in roles and practice in Hevra Kadisha groups.
  • Participants gave very clear descriptions of means towards developing better forms of communication.
  • Through the richness of these interviews I was able to elaborate on the practical and spiritual strengths of the Hevra Kadisha within communities. I was also able to delineate limitations and share creative solutions to problems.
  • Participants shared their visions of meaning, of the impact of a Hevra Kadisha both real and potential.

This thesis exemplifies these qualities of shared leadership – each participant contributed towards the success of this research.

I have been invited to sit as a regional representative on the international Board of Kavod v’Nichum by David Zinner, one of the directors in Washington D.C. This advisory group will be making people personally available to communities wishing to start a Hevra Kadisha, as well as creating an extensive pool of shared information that will be available on the Internet.

2. b. Apply systems thinking to solution of leadership and learning problems

I believe I have demonstrated how the Hevra Kadisha can be seen as a micro-system within the Conservative movement and within Judaism as a whole. The Conservative Movement was an arranged marriage between incompatible partners. The experimental grafting of Reform ideology and Orthodox practice created the hybrid that is Conservative Judaism. As with many hybrids there is an inherent tension within such makeup. Reproduction is often untrue as the hybrid components revert back to type. Thus we have many individuals in the Conservative Movement who believe their personal authority is primary regarding religious practice, even as their practice may be traditional, while others may acknowledge the greater influence and authority of their rabbi.

I have tried to demonstrate how some modes of learning and practice are integral to Jewish tradition even as individuals and communities may otherwise perceive their learning and practice as non-traditional. The Conservative Movement has an opportunity to provide direct leadership to its constituency by demonstrating that these rituals are integral to the “whole systems” that comprises Judaism. These traditional rituals provide an opportunity to integrate personal need and communal authority. The Hevra Kadisha and the ritual of taharah epitomize an integration of function and form as they epitomize the legacy of the traditions of Judaism. 

4.a. Identify, locate and evaluate research findings

I developed a process of identifying potential interview subjects, while remaining open to suggestion and serendipity.  I obtained permission to interview and made arrangements for the interviews to take place. After transcribing all the interviews from notes taken, I then created numerous categories to begin to evaluate the interview materials. I then combed through each interview page by page assessing each response and placing it in an appropriate category. Through these methods I was able to group similar topics and responses, and was then able to compare and contrast participants’ experiences and responses to my questions. At several points during these processes I also verified my research systems with a professor at the University of Victoria who is very familiar with qualitative research.

5.b. Use research methods to solve problems

I decided to do qualitatively based action research. My goal was to develop a description of the actual practices of different Hevra Kadisha groups in small communities in both Canada and the United States. The limitations of time and budget required that I confine my research to smaller numbers than I had originally planned. I developed questions and then proceeded to test the question in both Victoria and New York. I made the intent of my research clear to each participant and sought his or her informed consent before entering into the interview. I have made all attempts to create full confidentiality, although most participants stated they were very comfortable with the use of their name in any publication. I found that participants engaged readily in the interview process and would often anticipate and lead my questioning. A qualitative approach gave me the necessary leeway to obtain the richness of detail and personal experience that I was seeking. The personal stories of participants provide the reader with an engaging window into practice and belief. Hevra Kadisha groups are very clearly grounded in experiential learning, a form of learning that qualitative action research values and confirms.

7.b. Communicate with others through writing

Throughout my two years at Royal Roads my writing has played a significant role in demonstrating my capacity to comprehend, evaluate and discuss the material at hand. I believe this thesis clearly demonstrates my facility with written communication. My supervisor, Rabbi Neil Gillman has recommended that my thesis become part of the rabbinical curriculum at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. This is a tremendous honor but is truly an honor I share with participants who so eloquently described their experiences as Hevra Kadisha members.

1.b. Demonstrate leadership characteristics

 I believe my work with my local Hevra Kadisha amply demonstrates my leadership qualities. This study was precipitated in part as a response to questions directed to me about the practices in the Hevra Kadisha. As I believe we have a responsibility to become learning members of our congregation, I also believe that this learning will lead to leadership. It is my belief that this completed study and an attendant manual which I will be creating as a result of this research, will become valuable educational resource materials not only for the Hevra Kadisha in Victoria, but throughout North America. The manual will make a valuable contribution, not only to the literature, but also to the practice of Hevra Kadisha groups. As I have learned, I have attempted to not only incorporate that learning into my research study, but to also directly and immediately share it with my Hevra team. I organized an evening presentation about Hevra Kadisha and gave a one-hour lecture during which I presented some of my findings. I believe the qualitative approach that I took in my research demanded I present the voices of the participants with the immediacy with which they spoke with me. Their inclusion spread the wings of leadership to include them and their expertise. Any leadership I demonstrate in this field is supported by each of these participants.

3.c. Create and lead teams

A Hevra Kadisha is a team and involves a balance of teamwork and leadership. My hope is that this research will demonstrably add to the current minimal literature about contemporary Hevra Kadisha practices. In doing so new groups will be able to have access to the kinds of information that has never been gathered together in one place before. Leadership comes from information. As was amply demonstrated in my interviews, communication and education were key components to expertise in this field – components that are sorely needed in many groups. I am hoping that this, and further research projects, will provide accurate and accessible information so that all team members of any Hevra Kadisha can feel included and informed.

3.d. Evaluate and plan one’s own role and future

I discovered through these past two years, and particularly during the research and writing of this thesis, that I love being a scholar. My plan at present is to seek further graduate level study either at rabbinical school or working on a Ph.D. In either case I am interested in furthering my understanding about Hevra Kadisha groups. I have several projects in mind. Most immediately I would like to do a cross-cultural examination comparing Jewish and Islamic death rituals. I am also very interested in developing a lay-led training program based to a large degree on this research. The rabbinical program I am considering has a leadership component and requires the candidate to demonstrate that leadership capacity in some aspect of their local religious community. The program also requires the student to develop his or her own theology that is based in practical application of theory. Clearly Royal Roads has prepared me well for such an application. My plan is to continue developing resources within the Conservative Movement to increase awareness about our heritage and rituals regarding death and mourning.

4.a. Assess the implications of the learning environment

My learning, prior to RRU, was primarily informal and self-directed. I took several distance classes with the Jewish Theological Seminary, and these classes gave me the opportunity to realize both the opportunities and limitations of distance education. At several points during both summer sessions at Royal Roads, I discussed these areas with my supervisor. While computers have tremendously enhanced the potential of distance learning, I felt that on too many occasions the written requirements were far too simplistic and brief to demonstrate real engagement and understanding of the material. I also discussed my concerns that none of the courses given offered adequate preparation for the demands of graduate level research and writing.

It became very clear throughout my research, in the literature and in my interviews, that a great deal of learning happens in informal settings. Virtually all participants in my study talked about how they and others learn by doing. The practical necessities of the rituals certainly lend themselves to this kind of hands-on, informal learning. However even as I acknowledge the value of such opportunities, I think greater emphasis on formal learning of specific methodologies, particularly regarding the management of information is necessary. To this end I think more rigorous standards need to be held for research projects and writing skills prior to the writing of the final thesis/research project. Given these limitations I also gratefully acknowledge the doors that have opened for me within this same learning environment.

7.a. Listened effectively and valued others’ different opinions

A large measure of my qualitative research involved interviewing members of Hevra Kadisha groups.  While these interviews were primarily focused on procedures I needed to also be very aware of the nuances of what I was hearing so that the interview reflected the commitment and sensitivity of each participant. I believe my attention to the singular experience of each participant is reflected in the richness of the material in this thesis. I have also listened to the opinions of those who have been my readers along this journey and have been able to accept their suggestions as helpful and constructive.

4.c. Create learning opportunities for others in the workplace

I organized an evening in March 2001 to honor members of the Victoria Hevra Kadisha, and invited the synagogue Board, and all interested members of the Jewish community to attend. On that occasion I presented the highlights of my research. I also have discussed with individual members of the Hevra Kadisha the possibility for changes in our practice; changes based on my research. As a regional representative for Kavod v’Nichum I will be able to act in an advisory capacity for anyone in this area regarding Hevra Kadisha matters. The manual I plan to publish may also become an important resource in the Conservative Movement, within the rabbinical training program and beyond. I am hoping that through this research the Conservative Movement might more completely consider the needs of those in small communities and also create training opportunities for leadership for those working with Hevra Kadisha. In May 2001, I will be presenting my research to Hevra Kadisha groups in New Orleans and in Mobile, Alabama.

I am hoping to create numerous opportunities for learning about the Hevra Kadisha. I have organized a Hevra Kadisha discussion evening and plan to bring speakers each year to address the membership. To this end, I have arranged with David Zinner to give a d’rash (sermon) and meet with Victoria Hevra Kadisha members in June 2001. I hope to start a column in our local newsletter that briefly addresses some aspect of these rituals, as a means of creating greater awareness about the richness of our heritage. I will also be organizing a group of women to hand-stitch takhrikhim for our local use. These group meetings will also be an opportunity to share learning about these customs, their origin and their function.

7.c. Communicate orally

While written communication has become a large part of human exchange of information, the capacity to communicate orally is still essential. I have worked very hard to create opportunities to discuss the import of this research and share the contents of the research in a number of venues. In January I gave a d’rash at Shabbat services about some of the history of our practices, as they related to the reading in Torah that day. I also discussed my findings at a special meeting in Victoria. As my friends and family will attest, my obsession with this topic has led me to discuss little else for many months! I think the success of the interviews was also due in part to my ability to draw out the participants, and engage them in reflecting on their experiences.

Oral communication, finally, is about telling a story. This is a story with beginnings lost in time, a story with no ending. It is a story about the transition from this life to the next. And it is each person’s story – their devotion to community and their dedication of the survival of Jewish ritual. Jews have a very long tradition of telling stories – we have a written and oral tradition that is essentially conversational and storytelling. I humbly offer this research, in both written and oral form, as part of that vital and visionary tradition.


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A – 1

Standards for Conservative Judaism: United Synagogue Directory 2001

(As adopted in 1957 and amended at Biennial Conventions in 1961, 1969, 1971, 1985, 1989, and 1991)


Section 1:

                        Whenever the word “congregation” or “synagogue” is used in this document, it shall refer not only to the congregation or synagogue proper, but also to its affiliated arms, such as sisterhood, men’s club, youth group, etc.       

Section 2:

                        The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (“The United Synagogue”), recognizing the responsibility of the congregation to teach Judaism by example as well as by precept, and moved by the desire to instruct congregations and their leaders in standards of conduct which exemplify and reflect Jewish tradition and values within the Conservative Movement, adopts these standards For Congregational practice (“The Standards”) for observance by its affiliated congregations.

See pp. 66 – 94       

A – 2   

United Synagogue directory guidelines for Hevra Kadisha

Congregations may find it advisable to join with other congregations in forming a common Hevra Kadisha to serve all associated for this purpose.

 The Hevra Kadisha shall be a committee distinct and apart from the Cemetery Committee. Where such separation is not feasible, the committees may be merged.

The duties of the Hevra Kadisha are among the most important mitzvot incumbent upon us. Membership should be regarded as a distinct honor carrying with it the appreciation and respect of the entire congregation. Members of the Hevra Kadisha include men and women who serve and perform their duties willingly and piously.

The Taharah is described as:

The Hevra Kadisha shall arrange for the taharah, the ritual washing of the body. The taharah rite shall preferably be performed by members of the Hevra Kadisha. This is the practice in most Hevra Kadisha. Where this is not possible, persons hired especially for this purpose may be used.

Takhrikhim (white linen shrouds) shall be used to clothe the deceased. Other garments should not be used. This is in keeping with the Jewish tradition that in death all are equal.

Every adult male shall, in addition to the takhrikhim, be buried with a kipah and a talit which has been rendered pasul, namely in a talit from which one fringe has been removed. (p. 86, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2000 Directory and Resource Guide) (note: There will often be variations in transliteration of Hebrew)

B – 1 

Constitution of Board, Congregation Emanu-El, regarding Hevra Kadisha

          Article V, Section 14:

The Hevra Kadisha shall be a voluntary service organization, membership in it shall be members of the community. It shall perform the traditional duties of the Hevra Kadisha and shall be represented on the Board and in Committee as previously outlined. It is responsible to the Board.


C – 1   

Interview questions


How many years have you been a member of the Hevra Kadisha?

Are members of your Hevra Kadisha able to read Hebrew?

Are members of your Hevra Kadisha considered to be observant Jews?

What are the qualifications for membership?


What form of training did you have as a new member?

Was the training adequate in your opinion?

What raining do you think would be most effective for new members?

Would you be interested in participating in a training workshop?

What materials have you been given to study during your years in the Hevra Kadisha?


What continued training do you have regarding medical risks to members?

What safety precautions do you use during a taharah?


Do you have a manual to consult during taharah? Is it adequate? Will you send me a copy?

If so, are the prayers written in Hebrew only, Hebrew and English, transliterated?

Are both the masculine and feminine forms of addressing the met/metah available?

What problems, if any, have you encountered during a taharah?

Have you ever prepared an infant, a child, a victim of violent death? Did you know what to do?

Do you cover the face of the met/metah? When? How?

Where do you place the earth in the aron?

Do you cut or clean fingernails?


Who did you consult, if anyone, to obtain a solution to the problem?

Do the religious lay leaders in your synagogue provide any halakhic guidance to you?

Do you consult with any rabbis on-line?

Would a taharah manual that addresses routine and anomalous situations be useful to your group?


Why are you a member of the Hevra Kadisha?

 Do you have any comments you would like to add?

D – 1   

Names of participants

Ashland, Ore                                    Paul Firnstein

Atlanta, Georgia                              Rabbi Goodman

Bakersfield, CA                               Howard Silver

Boulder, Co                                                 Larry Sturgeon

Calgary, Alta                                    Leibe Doctor

Calgary, Alta                                    Lil Zudema  

Edmonton, Alta                               Shim Laskin

Edmonton, Alta                               Shirley Laskin

Honolulu, Hawaii                            Jay Friedheim

LaCrosse, Nebraska                     Katherine Engburgh

Mobile, Alab                                     Jeff Redisch           

Mobile, Alab                                     Rickie Voit

New York, NY                                  Rabbi Edelman

New York, NY                                  Rabbi Blumenfeld

New York, NY                                  Rabbi Zohn 

Richland, Wa                                   Eileen Franco

Regina, Sask                                   Noa Schwartz

Saint John, NB                                Norman Hamburg

Saint John, NB                                Marcia Kovin

St. Catherines, Ontario                 Harold Nash

St. Catherine’s, Ont.                       Sandra Safran

Victoria, B.C.                                    Robin Cantor

Victoria, B.C.                                    Bill Dean                                          

Washington, D.C.                           David Zinner           



[20] As the granddaughter of a Newfoundlander, I suggest this “Maritimer’s” sensibility is personified in the character of Marilla Cuthbert in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908). Set in Prince Edward Island the character of Marilla is by turns gruff and forthright, utterly pragmatic and yet wryly observant.

[21] A hekhsher is a registered kashrut symbol that will appear on packaged food. There are a number of different symbols – The K or U usually in a circle are most common. The symbol indicates that a mashgiah, an independent rabbinical supervisor has overseen the entire process of manufacturing. There are varing opinions in some Orthodox communities about the reliability and stringency of particular systems of supervison.   

[22]Apparently we were not alone in our error. He told me a funny sotry that a womn had relayed to him about this very discussion, as it moved from Philadelphia to New York and back again. The consensus was that “in Philadelphia it may be an apron, but in New York it is never an apron. Who cooks in New York?” (personal communication, Zohn, September 11, 2000).

[23] In September 2000, I attended an organizing meeting in Brooklyn for individuals from several synagogues that were interested in creating a joint Hevra Kadisha. I was sitting beside a doctor. At one point in the meeting she remarked that contrary to the assumptions of most people, she actually had very little experience in handling dead bodies – that was considered the purview of the nursing staff.

[24] Legend holds that swallows return to San Juan Capistrano California, to the St. Joseph’s Mission on March 19 every year. Along the Pacific Ocean coast, mature salmon return every year to spawn in the specific small creek or river where they first came to life.

[25] Isaac Pollock, who provided many of the artifacts for the 1999 – 2000 ‘From This World to the Next: Jewish Approaches to Illness, Death and the Afterlife‘ exhibition at the Jewish Theological Seminary told the following story at a lecture at JTS in May 2000. I will attempt to do his story-telling justice. Jews, originally from Europe, lived in Zimbabwe for over 150 years, in what was primarily an agricultural community. The community had a rabbi who was on a three-year contract; part of his contract stipulated his obligation to visit families throughout the year. The community received all ritual foods and necessities in two large shipments twice yearly, before Pesah (Passover) and before Rosh Hashanah. On one particular visit the rabbi found that a farmer had died. As the rabbi searched for his grave he came across two boards nailed together in a cross. Marked on the boards, he read “kasher l’Pesah” (kosher for Passover).