My Road to the Chevrah Kaddisha

Discovering one of Judaism’s most beautiful traditions

by Ilene Z. Rubenstein

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My maternal grandmother died when I was seven. I was convinced I had caused her death by ignoring my parents’ exhortation to be good during our last visit. Instead, I had argued with my brother and whined about my crayons. Only as an adult did I understand that my grandmother died from old age, not from my failure to be sufficiently docile. I did not attend the funeral and there was no shivah.

Five years later, my paternal grandmother was buried on the day of my junior high school graduation. My father attended the funeral; my mother and I attended the graduation. Afterwards, we joined the family at my aunt’s house for shivah.

My next encounter with death occurred when I was in college. After 36 hours of frantic searching, my boyfriend’s father was located, comatose, in a city hospital. He had collapsed following an angina attack and never regained consciousness. We had to identify his body; neither of us had ever seen a dead body. It then became our responsibility to arrange the funeral. Sadly, there were many more funerals of various relatives over the next 18 months.

My father had been very ill during the summer of 1973. He and I both sensed that he was dying although for a while that fall it appeared that he might recover. On erev Sukkot, the call came. My father was gone. I didn’t know that I would be handed a shovel at the funeral to pour dirt on my father’s coffin. It was so overwhelming that I almost passed out. We didn’t sit shivah. I thought it was because my father didn’t want us to, that he wanted us to focus on living our lives.

During the week of non-shivah, I stayed with my mother. I woke up each morning and pretended to go to my classes at N.Y.U. Instead I wandered around Greenwich Village until it was time to go home. Eventually I learned that it wasn’t my father’s mandate, but rather the holiday that led to this no-shivah decision. Fortunately, friends appeared each evening anyway bringing dinner, company and support, all of which were desperately needed and greatly appreciated.

One year later, we stood at my father’s unveiling only to find that the stone had not been set in place. You can imagine the bedlam that ensued.

These were the experiences that introduced me to death and bereavement – totally skewed and traumatic. For the next two decades I would not go near a cemetery, opting to help set out the meal of consolation instead.

As an adult, I experienced two miscarriages. It took me a year to emotionally recover from each. And suddenly the year of mourning, which had always seemed excessive to me, made sense.

A few years later, I attended a class on the Jewish approach to death and dying taught by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips. Her eloquent teaching showed me the beauty, logic, sensitivity, timeless wisdom, and comprehensiveness of the traditional Jewish approach, from comforting the soul during shmira (showing respect to the dead by not leaving a body unattended) to a simple funeral and burial, to consoling the mourners. As she described the journey of the soul during the year of mourning, I recalled the brief but transcendent moment at my college graduation (eight months after my father’s death) when I felt his presence unmistakably with me.

I left Rabbi Sandler-Phillips’ class profoundly saddened that such a beautiful heritage was in danger of being lost, but not yet ready to act. Intellectually and emotionally, I filed her teaching away for future use.

In time I met people involved with the chevrah kaddisha, the Jewish burial society – people who were very concerned with death yet so full of life. I slowly began to accept what I understood intellectually: death is a natural part of life. I started to learn more about the traditional Jewish responses to death, and the endangered tradition of the chevrah kaddisha.

At the same time, determined to become a more caring community, my congregation, the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, was undergoing its own evolution. First, we strengthened our G’mach Committee to ensure that mourners would always have visitors, support and a minyan during shivah. When a young mother died of breast cancer, at the family’s request, an ad hoc shmira was organized. Several years later, two beloved members of our community died within a few weeks of each other. Although we provided shmira for each, we could not provide the full services of a traditional chevrah kaddisha the way we wished we could. Finally, we were ready. We received training in performing taharah (ritual preparation of a body for burial) and Brooklyn’s first non-Orthodox, full service chevrah kaddisha was launched, with a low-cost funeral plan.

When I was asked to participate in shmira for the first time, I was honored and excited to perform such an important mitzvah – and absolutely terrified. What I wasn’t prepared for was how uplifted and centered I would feel afterward. I realized that opportunities were being given to me, through the magnificent legacy of the chevrah kaddisha, to heal old traumas and to reconcile death as an integral part of life. Subsequently, I participated in my first taharah. It was emotionally, psychologically and spiritually transforming.

It is said that the work of a chevrah kaddisha is chesed shel emet, a true kindness that can never be repaid. Anybody who has participated in this work will tell you that really is not true. Participating in and preserving a profoundly beautiful tradition, learning to accept death and the incredible appreciation of life that is gained are priceless gifts, gifts that are available to all who claim them.

Ilene Z. Rubenstein, LMSW, is a college counselor and advisor. She is a member of the Park Slope Jewish Center Chevrah Kaddisha and G’mach Committee.