Members of a Jewish burial society made a case for more inclusion in the ancient practice of preparing the dead for burial, or tahara, during a recent virtual talk on the diversity of gender identities today.
While tahara was created in a time of strict gender roles of male and female, the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston (CHK) seeks to accommodate all Jews who wish to be buried through tahara based on the gender of their choice.
In the LimmudBoston-sponsored talk, “Beyond the Binary in Life and Death: The Making of a Gender-Inclusive Hevra Kadisha,” CHK co-president Barbara Neustadt said, “Our hevra’s mission is to serve all Jews – with an emphasis on ‘all’ – to educate all Jews in the beautiful and spiritual nature of tahara.”
Tahara is a process in which the body of a deceased person is washed and dressed for burial. The CHK has been doing gender-inclusive tahara through one funeral home in West Newton, Brezniak-Rodman Funeral Directors. Teams from the CHK work to prepare each nonconforming body.
“Our journey has been complex, a bit complicated at times,” Neustadt said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job learning and embracing each other, each other’s differences, each other’s similarities.”
Founded in 2013, the CHK, which is based in Lexington, currently has about 150 volunteers representing Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and non-affiliated Jews, and an advisory board of three rabbis.
One of the panelists at the talk, Emily Fishman, a speech-language pathologist who is also known as EmFish, showed viewers an image of a “gender unicorn” to illustrate diverse gender identities, including gay, lesbian, and bisexual. As EmFish explained, individuals can be cisgender (identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth) or transgender (identifying with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth). They also can be nonbinary or genderqueer individuals who do not identify with conventional female/woman or male/man distinctions, and gender-nonconforming people whose identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth.
CHK member and Hebrew College student Joey Glick reported on a survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming Jews conducted by Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the Northeastern University Jewish spiritual adviser who is both queer and trans. The survey found that trans and nonbinary individuals expressed concern that when they die, members of a hevra kadisha might express unfamiliarity or even hostility toward their bodies if they are not acquainted with the gender spectrum.
“Becky’s interpretation was that transgendered people want to be treated with dignity,” Glick said, requesting they be referred to by their “chosen name and pronouns,” and that hevra members “not be surprised, shocked, curious, or otherwise caught off-guard by trans bodies.”
To reflect this point, Glick read from the 2019 poem “Taharah” by Miller Oberman: “You may not have seen a man’s body like this one before you, which I hope is very old, wrinkled and (since I’m wishing) fit, muscled as much as an old man can be.”
The poem continues: “If I am unexpected let me not seem grotesque to you, as I have too many people, perhaps even my own parents, and others whose highest kindness was to say nothing.”
Describing an ideal hevra member, one survey respondent requested “someone whose posture is kindness and compassion, openness and love, even if the person does not understand or have the background, treat the meyt with reverence and respect, learn quickly enough about trans experiences.”
Other respondents expressed frustration toward a lack of understanding of their identity.
“I would prefer only trans folks [to perform my tahara],” one stated, “binary or not – because they will likely respect my body. No cis people.” Another respondent wrote, “A non-Jewish burial is preferable to one that is insulting and degrading.”
To increase awareness of gender diversity among funeral home directors, the CHK consulted with Keshet, a Boston-based advocacy organization for LGBTQ Jews. Keshet recommended creating an informational video.
“We hope the video will not only educate funeral directors in a new way, but also open their hearts to all Jews,” Neustadt said.
As she explained, this includes “[asking] the right questions” and “[giving] us information we needed” so that CHK can contact the appropriate team to perform tahara, whether it is a male, female, or genderqueer team. Such an approach will “show respect not only to the meyt but also to the team,” she said.
Ultimately, Neustadt reflected, “Our job is to show kavod to the meytim, the people who have died … If we know that the meyt or meytah or meytx has requested a trans [burial] team or a nonbinary team but the family is not supportive, we support what the meyt requests.”