Pittsburgh Jewish burial societies offer insights at national conference
Learning is an act of remembrance and preparation.
Respect for the dead requires dignity, purpose and education, which is why, nearly eight months after performing unanticipated tasks, representatives from Pittsburgh’s two Jewish burial societies traveled to Colorado to explain their actions following Oct. 27. In joining others dedicated to the Jewish practice of preparing the deceased for burial, the Pittsburgh contingent shared insights at the 17th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference.
Part of the purpose in traveling to Colorado and participating in this conference was to deliver a call for preparedness, said Malke Frank.
“We were suggesting they go back to their synagogue and talk with their caring committee, or rabbi or chevra members and work through a plan to deal with the issue should it ever happen, to discuss within a congregational framework death and traditional Jewish practices and to forge relationships with other Jewish communal organizations, like we did, so people already have a tradition of working together.”
Frank co-founded the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh in 2004. Since then, she has attended the North American conference and used it as an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals. This year, it was important to make clear the uniqueness of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and its relevance to the period following Oct. 27.
“One of the things I talked about is how Pittsburgh has a real tradition, a decades-old tradition, of these communal organizations working together for whatever the needs are, whether to plan a program or something tragic, whatever it is,” she said. “Another layer of that is some of the persons who are involved in these communal institutions are friends outside of their professional lives. … In a lot of cities, the people in various organizations don’t even know each other.”
“The reality of the world today is these things do happen and there needs to be a plan that hopefully you don’t have to put into place,” said Jonathan Schachter, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, and a member of the New Community Chevra Kadisha since 2007.
Schachter participated in several panels at the Colorado conference. Being in the company of fellow speakers and listeners was beneficial to “decompressing and working through what we had been through,” he said.
What transpired on Oct. 27 and after is difficult to address because “it’s something that’s very emotional for me for a lot of reasons — obviously the horror that we all experienced and everyone knows everyone,” he added.
“This was the hardest thing for me since the massacre because it brought back all of the memories and all of the emotions we went through,” echoed Alisa Fall.
Since joining the New Community Chevra Kadisha in 2014, Fall has performed numerous taharot (ritual purifications of the dead). But after Oct. 27, she and others undertook an additional practice: shmira (watching over the deceased’s body prior to burial). Fall designated a portion of her Colorado remarks to describing the latter ritual act.
“We did not know much about shmira, but wanted to do anything we could to help,” she said. After bodies were released from the crime scene, “we arrived that evening to the most gracious funeral directors that went out of their way to comfort us. We read prayers, sang songs and received a phone call from our friend Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who leads Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He offered comfort, prayers and love.”
Fall also described her involvement in cleaning the Tree of Life building.
“It was surreal as we sat in the all-purpose room where my family attended Purim carnivals and holiday services. I was now dressed in full protective gear, head to toe, with tools in hand. Rabbi [Elisar] Admon briefed us on what needed to be done as the men and women were divided into separate groups. He made us feel comfortable and at ease during such a daunting task,” she added.
Admon, a member of Pittsburgh’s Gesher Hachaim Jewish Burial Society, also talked about the aftermath of Oct. 27 at the Colorado conference. Apart from describing his role in “approaching” the Tree of Life site both in the hours and weeks after the attack, Admon shared stories related to his involvement with ZAKA, an Israeli group of volunteer emergency response teams, in order to provide conference attendees an understanding of how to handle “events dealing with blood, suicide, a car accident or shooting,” he said.
Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, who is not a member of either Steel City Jewish burial society but maintains a Pittsburgh presence, participated in the conference and said in an email it was “an incredible opportunity be with 140 other people who are dedicated to the sacred work of tending to people at the end of life.”
The June 3-5 event featured an array of speakers, as well as sessions dedicated to addressing spiritual and ethical wills, green burials and end-of-life accompaniments.
The conference (which will be held next year in Pittsburgh) afforded “an opportunity to convene, get together and be in the presence of people who do the sacred work we do,” said Schachter.
Tuesday morning, before beginning a nearly day-long focus on events pertaining to Oct. 27, conference attendees arrived to discover a single stone placed on each seat. Attendees were told they could hold the stone, gift the stone or use it however they liked. When members of the Pittsburgh contingent finished describing Oct. 27, people approached the podium. One by one, listeners placed stones in the speakers’ hands.
“It was pretty powerful. They showed how they related to me and what I had gone through,” said Frank.
The moment grew out of the Jewish tradition of leaving stones at gravesites, a custom that some believe is meant to signify permanence — and that just as stones weather time, so too will memories remain.
Frank said that when she and the other Pittsburgh attendees were speaking, “you would hear gasps. People weren’t able to understand how we were able to do it. It was hard for them to comprehend and digest that this happened, how it happened, where it happened, the role of the chevra kadisha in it.”
There was one other fact the Pittsburgh group made clear, added Frank: “How we were able to live through it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.