Throughout Jewish history and wherever Jews have lived, among the highest expressions of these lofty ideals has been the hevra kaddisha, the Jewish Burial Society; literally, the “sacred gathering.” The first task of a new Jewish community has always been the organization of caring men and women to tend to the needs of the deceased, preparing for the respectful and loving burial of our dear ones. Members of the hevra kaddisha attend to the practice of taharah – the ritual washing of the body prior to burial, as well as the cloaking of the departed in the traditional burial garments, tachrichim, and the placing of the departed in the simple casket. These rites are acts of unblemished kindness, for which no repayment can ever be made, and no such favor ever returned. There is no greater mitzvah in Jewish life than being part of a hevra kaddisha.
Sadly, I recently learned that here in our North Shore community, the availability of a hevra kaddisha to perform the loving acts preparing our departed dear ones for burial has become a problem – especially for those families who do not identify as Orthodox in practice. This is partly due to the more “corporate” evolution of family-owned mortuaries, and likewise a product of our own geographical individualities in relation to the larger, metro-Boston Jewish community; families who desire for their dear ones the traditional rites, including taharah are left without recourse aside from shipping their beloved corpse into Brookline or other locations, before the body can truly be allowed to “rest in peace.” The principal of “k’vod ha-met” – respect for the departed – must be sacrificed in order to adhere to our traditional rites.
Recently, I along with my colleagues of the North Shore Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, in conjunction with Jewish funeral directors in our area, have been meeting to address the absence of a local hevra kaddisha. In addition, those leading the effort (myself included among them) have engaged in discussions with Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Community Hevra Kaddisha of Greater Boston to help resolve the dilemma we find ourselves in here in our community. The Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston (CHK) is an independent, non-denominational organization of individuals, synagogues and other Jewish institutions committed to making the full range of burial rituals accessible and available to the entire Jewish community. It is a model that we are looking to emulate here on the North Shore (See www.hevrakadisha.org for more information).
So, this is where you come in – for creating and participating in a hevra kaddisha is a voluntary expression of lovingkindness. Please consider joining us and learning about being trained in the various rituals and procedures that have been part of Jewish life and death for millennia. This is such a wonderful mitzvah and I know that when you understand the process, you will want to participate. Our community will gather as a whole for an informational session on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. Rabbis, funeral directors, and representatives of the CHK will be on hand to help guide the discussion and move forward to learning what might be involved in creating our own consortium of volunteers ready and willing to share in this highest of all mitzvot.
Rabbi Richard Perlman leads Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.