A Blessing at the End

Profound Service of Groups That Help With End-of-Life Rituals

thinkstock

By Leonard Fein

Published October 27, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Doing Jewish” is a nice little catch phrase, but it doesn’t begin to cover the stunningly diverse ways in which America’s Jews in fact go about the doing of Jewish. The words call to people’s minds, say, the activities of the Anti-Defamation League or of their own local synagogue or Jewish community center, perhaps their local federation. But the larger truth is that there are stalwarts of Jewish communal life whose activities go well beyond these more or less conventional enterprises.

I have in mind just now the activities of an organization called Kavod v’Nichum, Honor and Comfort, which provides assistance, training and resources about Jewish death and bereavement practices for synagogues and communities. Its Gamliel project includes, among other things, information on how and why traditional practices dealing with dying, death and mourning evolved: funeral, shiva [the seven-day period of mourning], shloshim [the 30-day, including shiva, transitional period of mourning], yahrtzeit [the annual commemoration of a death], Yizkor [the memorial service recited four times a year by the congregation during Jewish holiday services], unveiling, keriah [the traditional tearing of a garment by family members just before the funeral service begins]; the funeral service, its diverse components and what happens next.

It takes its name from the basic purposes of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society that was a staple of Jewish communal life until recent decades. As the Gamliel people put it, their “mission is to restore to Jewish death and bereavement practice the traditions and values of honoring the dead (kavod hamet) and comforting the bereaved (nichum avelim).” Gamliel reports that “in some larger congregations, 50-75 people may participate as chaverim [comrades] who work directly with the bereaved and mediate between them and the funeral and burial providers, or perform the washing (tahara) ritual, or guard the body until it is buried (shmira), or provide a meal of condolence, or set up and lead shiva, or stay in touch with the bereaved for some period after death.”

Of all these, it has long seemed to me that the most touching, even moving — and in many ways the most challenging — is tahara. There is nothing more intimate than washing the body of the deceased, the more so since the traditional rules that apply, intended to preserve and protect the dignity of the one whose passing is being mourned, are meticulous in their detail.

Confronting death, be it the death of a loved one or the death of a ne’er-do-well, be the death timely or untimely, is a terrifying experience. It often arouses deeply conflicting feelings, for we are in the presence of a loss that can never be repaired, of a tear in the garment of our lives. We must somehow deal with the permanent presence of an absence.

Come the question: How do I, whose overriding passion is the pursuit of social justice — which includes the largest questions before us, the wholesale questions — view people such as those who devote themselves to such tiny retail transactions as tahara?

The answer?: With profound admiration.

Life, after all, is about finding ways to join riduf tzedek, the pursuit of justice, with g’milut chesed, deeds of loving kindness. And if, as appears to be the case, people tend to specialize in the one or the other, there are all the rest of us to repair any resulting imbalance.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.