For nearly a century, members of the chevra kadisha have tended to Pittsburgh’s dead. Notices in The Jewish Criterion, dating back to the 1920s, denote various synagogue groups and officers dedicated to the task. Today, two entities fulfill the charge: Gesher Hachaim Jewish Burial Society and The New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh. Representatives of both described the “holy work” of Jewish burial during a March 10 program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Titled “Out of the Shadows and Into the Heart,” the event featured comments from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, Stefanie Small and Dan Leger.
In the days following the Oct. 27 murder of 11 Jews inside the Tree of Life synagogue building, members of the media explored the efforts of a chevra kadisha, explained Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation. While much of Jewish burial is shrouded in silence due to respect for the deceased, last week’s program provided a chance to better understand the vital work of chevra kadishas.
For her part, having grown up in a household where both of her parents regularly performed the act of accompanying the Jewish dead, Stefanie Small volunteered to join Gesher Hachaim shortly after she arrived in Pittsburgh.
“A chevra kadisha was just something that was always a part of my life in some form or another and something my family did,” said Small.
Through her teachers Mimi Maizlech, Naomi Balaban and Ann Greathouse, Small discovered the exacting nature of serving the departed.
“Doing a taharah is a physical and emotional event,” she said of the process of preparing a body. “The room is quiet as we try to be respectful of the person we are helping on this last part of their journey. We uncover and cover, and wash and clean, and pour and dry, and dress and tie and accompany. There is lifting and turning and movement and placement. There are words that we say and forgiveness that we ask. There’s a lot of water and I always get soaked.”
For those interested in aiding the process, there is a place for everyone, she added. “Some people might think that they can’t do it, and there is no role for them. There is always a role. Years ago, I broke my foot. I was not supposed to do the activities that a taharah requires. I could not do the washing, but I could help with the preparation, the laying out of shrouds and of course the reading. There is always a role.”
Nurse Dan Leger, the founder of a pediatric hospice and co-founder of NCCK, agreed.
“I have been with babies as they’ve been born. I have been with hundreds of people as they have died. It just seems logical to me that as people have to leave this world, they shouldn’t leave it alone — they need to be accompanied through this. So the act of midwifery both at the beginning of life and at the end of life is something that is integral to being human as well as being Jewish,” he said.
In 2004, Leger, Malke Frank and Pat Cluss co-founded NCCK after realizing members of the community required an alternative to the Orthodox Gesher Hachaim.
“There were people who need this accompaniment who would not have participated in it because they felt removed from the Orthodox world in some way,” he said. “So we needed to bring it to them in a way that they could relate to. Just like there are lots of different kinds of shuls in town, there needs to be a different kind of chevra kadisha.”
Even so, NCCK has a wide variety of members.
“The members of our chevra kadisha belong to many streams of Judaism, including Orthodox,” said Frank.
“We do exactly the same thing [as Gesher Hachaim],” Leger clarified. “It’s not what we do that’s different. It’s making it available to more people. I think that it has provided so many people in the Pittsburgh Jewish community with the ability to know that the funeral home industry is not comprised of people who take your dead one away from you and bury them but people who really still care for you as Jews … and will continue to accompany you in this process, along with your loved one, who is now in this period of transition.”
For the nearly 60 attendees at last week’s program, Leger’s words carried particular weight. Leger is a survivor of the Tree of Life shooting, and these were his first public remarks since the horrific day almost 18 weeks earlier.
“I’m really fortunate,” he said. “I am blessed. I am blessed to be alive. I feel that some of us get the opportunity to feel close to death, and somehow we have the opportunity to make choices along the way, how we manage these deep things that happened to us through our lives. Viktor Frankl was the great teacher about this, he said that you don’t have the ability to change your fate, but you always have the ability to decide how you’re going to manage the consequences of that fate. I have my story about that. I’ll tell that story over time, but it begins with saying thank you. It begins with saying, ‘I am so fortunate to be a person who has learned the meaning of chesed through being a Jew.’” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.