Liberal Jews Stake Claim to Burial Rituals as Pluralistic Groups Spring Up

Non-Orthodox Rebel Amid Monopoly on Rites

By Julie Weiner

Published October 23, 2013.
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(JTA) — When his cousin died unexpectedly a few years ago, Hal Miller-Jacobs was recruited to oversee the funeral arrangements and wound up helping with the tahara — the traditional preparation of the body for burial.

For the first time in his life, the 76-year-old computer professional joined with other volunteers in carefully washing, cleaning and dressing the body in a simple white shroud.

“It was probably the most moving Jewish experience I ever had in my life,” Miller-Jacobs said. But when he tried to volunteer with his local chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, he was turned away. Miller-Jacobs said he believes it’s because he is not Orthodox.

So Miller-Jacobs teamed up with Judith Himber, a friend and fellow congregant at his Conservative synagogue in Lexington, Mass., to launch Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, an inclusive Jewish burial society.

“We have no dissatisfaction with the work they do,” Miller-Jacobs said of the society that declined his membership. “We’re just looking to open this up to more people.”

(Henry Feuerstein, the coordinator for the Boston-area chevra kadisha Miller-Jacobs sought to join, did not respond to a call for comment.)

Often shrouded in secrecy, Jewish burial societies and traditional Jewish funeral rituals are largely unfamiliar to most non-Orthodox American Jews, who generally outsource the details of preparation and burial to funeral homes. Many American Jews increasingly are opting for cremation, long a Jewish taboo.

But now a growing network of liberal and pluralistic burial societies like the fledgling Boston one are hoping to popularize traditions that they believe offer powerful spiritual experiences and comfort in the face of death and loss.

“I see this as a major educational opportunity for the American Jewish community and frankly as a way for serving aging baby boomers,” said Stuart Kelman, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the Gamliel Institute, a training center that provides online courses addressing the how-tos of chevra kadisha work.

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