A member of our Religious Practices Committee has put forth the idea of forming a chevrah kadisha and providing some services to those who are interested in utilizing them. The committee voted to start with the practice of sitting with the body until the funeral. This proposal is being sent to the board of directors for approval. The chair of the committee would like to know if there are other Reform Congregations that have started to offer these services. Apparently some people are uncomfortable with the idea and are looking for guidance from others' experiences. Sue 160 families
Temple Israel, Tallahassee, Florida, has owned the Jewish Cemeteries in Tallahassee for about forty years. As a volunteer, my core mitzvah for the past eighteen years has been to administer them. I gradually expanded the mitzvah from the plot sales and management by taking hospice training, nursing courses, extensive readings, and becoming involved with a national network of Chevra Kadisha/Cemetery Committees like ours. This year was the first North American Conference of Chevra Kadisha/Cemetery Committees, and I represented Temple Israel among about two hundred delegates, mostly Conservative, then Reconstructionist, then Reform, then even a few Orthodox. The traditions of the Chevra Kadisha are coming into/or returning to Reform Judaism. At our temple, the committee offers bikur cholim for the terminally ill, vidduy, planning assistance, officiating at minyanim of comfort, officiating at funerals when the rabbi is not available, and other services. Tahara and shomrim are not offered regularly for lack of demand and lack of enough volunteers to provide this continuously. I hope that we will get there, and, now having been trained in tahara and the application of tachrichim, I know we will be able to offer these services soon. This coming February-March, I will teach an adult ed course at the temple on Jewish end-of-life issues, ranging from visiting the terminally ill to consoling the bereaved, with a strong emphasis on coaching the class through writing ethical wills.
One of the most rewarding pieces of news in this area is that, as part of my volunteer mitzvot efforts, I just wrote a continuing education course for registered nurses on "The Spiritual Needs of the Terminally Ill Patient," and it was accepted; we completed a contract, and it will be offered to RNs for CEUs starting next year. I must have covered many faiths adequately to be accepted, but my bias as a Jewish chaplain must also be obvious.
A tremendous concern going into the national conference was if the lack of always doing tahara and assisting with tachrichim should keep our Cemetery Committee from calling itself a Chevra Kadisha. The two hundred other delegates assured us that there is no ritual that is a "rite of passage" for the moniker. We offer what the community and congregation needs and what our small volunteer group can provide. So, this year, in the temple directory, we show ourselves as Cemetery Committee/Chevra Kadisha as we gradually introduce the congregation to the Hebrew term. By next year, we may only show Chevra Kadisha.
The tradition of congregational members re-taking charge of more and more of the rituals that had been shifted to professional funeral assistants apparently is so strong across so many faith structures, that CNN even taped part of the national Chevra Kadisha conference! Barry About 360 families
Our community has a long-standing but small Chevra Kadisha consisting of a team of volunteers from local Conservative, Orthodox, Reform synagogues. Their activities are limited to preparing the body for burial in the ritual manner. They work in close cooperation with several of the local funeral directors. The Chevra no longer has anyone available to sit with the body, but if the family arranges it, those funeral directors will accommodate this custom. Marian
The question was raised about discussing chevrah kadisha on this list. I think it is absolutely appropriate to include questions of ritual observance here. Though not strictly worship, issues of ritual practice often fall within the purview of the ritual/worship committee. I have a list of congregations who have chevrah kadisha and am happy to share the contact information I have; please contact me directly. Two other resources are the Web site of the National Chevrah Kadisha organization, www.Jewish-funerals.org, and Reform Judaism magazine's Spring 2001 issue--the magazine is searchable on their Web site and is a wonderful resource (www.urj.org/rjmag).
The Department of Synagogue Management has these additional resources:
The publication To Everything There is a Season: Congregational Funeral and Cemetery Policies and Practices. It is also on the Web at www.urj.org/synman/pdfdl/funeral.pdf. It contains a section on chevrah kadisha (Page 9) and a listing of temples (Appendix E).
The electronic database Communicate! (www.urj.org/comm) has a more expansive listing and explanation under the key word "chevra kadisha".
Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living
My core mitzvah/volunteer passion, for the past about eighteen years has been leading our "Cemetery Committee," more recently transitioning in name now to Cemetery Committee/Chevra Kadisha and soon, to just Chevra Kadisha.
We began many years ago by realizing that if [our city] was to have sacred Jewish burial land, then our congregation had better develop it and administer it, although occupancy is not restricted to Temple members. The cemeteries (there are now three of them) are operated in accordance with our interpretations of Reform tradition and halachah.
For the period of my tenure, we have expanded the services of our committee from merely managing the real estate to providing grief and bereavement assistance, vidduy, and officiating at funerals and minyanim of comfort (at the rabbi's request and scheduling conflicts), offering an adult ed course presently ("Teach Us to Number Our Days") and heading towards "tahara" (my rabbinic grammar expert keeps pointing out that it is really "tohora" but has been continuously mis-referenced as "tahara").
Last year, I had the privilege of attending the first North American Chevra Kadisha Conference, in Maryland. There, an important outcome was the endorsement that we had the right to call our Cemetery Committee a "Chevra Kadisha," and the rite of passage was not tohora, but rather responding to our community's needs. Presently, more in our community are expressing an interest in the traditions of tohora and shomrim, so I am hoping that my adult ed class will produce more volunteers.
The conference had 200 attendees, mostly Conservative, then Reconstructionist, then Reform, then even some Orthodox, who were frequently praised for joining with us.
At [our congregation], we have made some attempts to write down bylaws for the Cemetery Committee, but they really do not exist as such. We do have a published fee schedule for plots and we do have a standard, and ever-increasing "caveat" added to the bottom of the deeds that I issue after a purchase.
From experience, the most important questions to ask prospective clients are: Do we have an imminent situation or are we pre-planning; are all the intended occupants Jewish or do we need to review our policies on the non-Jew; and are all parties considering traditional burial and not cremation? After that, the transaction is simpler.
Non-Jews are permitted in our cemeteries to keep families intact and in the case of a tzedakah offering, provided that there are no symbols or ceremonies inconsistent with Judaism. Our goal is to make this very clear up front, especially in the case of interfaith families. This is also why we only sell spaces based on intended occupants, and not "unassigned" family plots. The status of the intended occupant determines the plot fee and the "symbols/ceremonies" clause.