Rabbi describes renewed interest in the chevra kadisha

Rabbi describes renewed interest in the chevra kadisha

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips talks to the dead — out of respect for them.

In fact, so do most members of chevrei kadishei (holy societies, plural of chevra kadisha) who volunteer to ritually wash, prepare and watch over the deceased until their Jewish burials.

It is perhaps one of the lesser-known Jewish rituals related to the dead, but one steeped in Jewish philosophy.

“We address and ask forgiveness of the deceased by name, both when we begin and when we finish the cleansing and dressing,” said Sandler-Phillips, a scholar-in-residence this past weekend for the New Community Chevra Kadisha in Pittsburgh.

Aside from that there is little speaking at all.

“Beyond the reading of the liturgy, volunteers speak to each other only as necessary to coordinate the tasks,” she told the Chronicle in an interview via email,  “although I encourage singing during the process.

“From a traditional Jewish perspective, while the soul leaves the body at the time of death, it needs additional time to release its identification with the body,” she continued. “The soul is believed to remain in the vicinity of the body for at least the duration of shiva (the first seven days of mourning), and not to separate completely from the body until after the first 12 months following death.  These beliefs are reflected in our practices.  Just as those who are born among us are washed, swaddled and watched over around the clock, we offer the same loving care to those who die among us — as we repair the circle of life.”

Sandler-Phillips, a rabbi, social worker, and a founding member of the chevra kadisha at Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn — which has more than 75 volunteers — is the author of a manual on tahara (ritual purification of the body). She also is the director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources, which provides mindful responses to human needs throughout the life cycle.

She spoke this weekend at Dor Hadash Congregation at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue, at Congregation Beth Shalom and at the new chevra’s Seventh Adar Dinner at Rodef Shalom Congregation. She also did a teaching session with members of the chevra.

Chevrei kadishei have enjoyed resurging interest in recent years, Sandler-Phillips said, as many Jews try to reconnect with this very spiritual aspect of their heritage.

“Many Jewish communities encourage their members to show up for each other in illness or at a house of mourning.  In the same way, the sacred burial fellowship commits us to taking care of our own at the time of death, rather than leaving the bodies of our dead to strangers,” She said. “The only requirement for volunteers is the ability to be respectful and cooperative in the presence of the dead.” 

Jews young and old alike are rediscovering chevrei kadisha, she said.

“I am thrilled that so many of our burial fellowship volunteers are (or have been) parents of young children,” Sandler-Phillips said. “Each of our current women’s team co-chairs (who now co-chair the burial fellowship as a whole) gave birth to her youngest child and came back to volunteer soon afterward.  This helps to insure that the values of taking care of our own at death will be reclaimed and passed on to future generations.”

In fact, “every once in a while a volunteer parent will bring a teenager to share the vigil-keeping, and I think many more high school and college students would volunteer if there were effective outreach. Anyone past bar/bat mitzva age is eligible.”

She sees the differences between burial fellowships primarily in terms of their diversity of customs.

“The city of Jerusalem maintains about a dozen burial fellowships, most organized along lines of ethnicity and custom, and all of which would probably be classified as ‘Orthodox,’ in some way,” she said. “I think that the more significant division of burial fellowships in North America is between those that are truly voluntary and those that provide income on a fee-for-service basis.”

She recounted one story about how the ritual of preparing and watching over the dead has actually brought Jews of different streams together:

“We do most of our work with a very Orthodox funeral home in an insular Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn,” she said. “I once asked one of our colleagues there why they were so willing to cooperate with us, and he replied: ‘Because you do it Orthodox.’

“He was speaking to a woman rabbi wearing a kippa who has made a few egalitarian adjustments to the liturgy,” Sandler-Phillips said of her Orthodox colleague, “but I think his answer reflected our mutual respect for the burial fellowship traditions of simplicity and equality in death.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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