Not too long ago, there was a time when all across America where after a loved one’s death, a family would call on the local Hevra Kadisha, or Jewish Burial Society, to perform tahara – the ritual cleansing of the body – before burial.
These days, there are just two main Hevra Kadishas that serve Greater Boston. One is based in Brookline, and is run by observant Orthodox Jews. The other society is The Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, which was started in Lexington in 2013 and provides service to all Jews, including the LGBTQ community.
For as long as most remember, the North Shore has been without a Hevra Kadisha. Those seeking to send their loved ones for tahara must ship the body to Brookline or Newton to have the cleansing done. It is performed by a group of four or five volunteers. As part of the tahara, they work together and wash the body, pour a continuous stream of 24 quarts of water from head to toe, and then dress the body in a shroud and place it in a casket.
According to Jewish tradition, the neshama – or soul – remains near the body from the moment of death to burial. That is why it is treated with deep respect and dignity during this transition, through the tahara, to the burial.
For more than three years, a group of rabbis and congregants have worked together on the North Shore to create their own burial society. Now, it is an official nonprofit: The Community Hevra Kadisha North Shore Boston. Its rabbinical advisers include Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, and Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.
“There has not been a Hevra Kadisha up here, so the bodies go to Brookline for tahara, and that’s just not acceptable,” said Rabbi Adler. “I think we need to show kavod (respect), and if there’s something we can do as a community to fulfill this beautiful mitzvah, then I’m all for it.”
Rabbis Perlman, Adler and Meyer initially began working to create a local hevra just before COVID-19 began. Last fall, interest picked up again, and the group officially formed.
“Throughout Jewish history and wherever Jews have lived, among the highest expressions of these lofty ideals has been the Hevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial Society; literally, the ‘sacred gathering,’” said Rabbi Perlman.
“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 Kadisha 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 Kadisha.”
At present, the Community Hevra Kadisha North Shore Boston has six members who have been trained to perform tahara. The group holds regular information and educational meetings, and trains at Goldman Funeral Chapel in Malden, where the tahara will be performed by members of the same sex as the deceased.
Linda Goodspeed, who lives in Beverly and serves as a vice president of Temple B’nai Abraham, felt drawn to the group when it began, and is now co-founder and president of the Community Hevra Kadisha North Shore Boston.
Goodspeed believes the group will grow and serve the needs of the North Shore, and points to The Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston as a model. That group has provided training and informational sessions to the North Shore hevra, and began in 2013. Since then it has performed tahara about 1,000 times, and now has 150 trained members to assist with this sacred act. Those who decide not to do tahara can help with the planning and administration.
After forming in 2013, the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston sought members by asking synagogues to include the group’s information in its bulletins and newsletters. Word of mouth about the tradition has also brought people to the hevra. Now, its members come from a wide swath of Greater Boston, including Lexington, Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Medford, Burlington, Bedford, Lincoln, Wayland and Sharon. They perform tahara at the Brezniak funeral home in Newton.
“I find it to be a very uniquely spiritual experience,” said Lexington’s Barbara Neustadt, who helps lead The Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston. “At Brezniak, as at most Jewish funeral homes, there is a room that’s set aside for tahara. And when I walk into the room, time stops. We don’t wear watches. There’s no clock in the room. We don’t talk. If we need to talk, we whisper.
“We sing nigunim, which are wordless [Hasidic] melodies, and we do our holy work of tahara … very much, it’s timeless. Time has stopped and singing brings us to another spiritual level, and being with a person who has died brings us to a feeling of awe. The motto of Hevra Kadishas all across the world is Hesed Shel Emet, or the truest act of giving, the truest act of kindness. Because you’re giving to a person who can no longer return the giving. It’s not reciprocal.
“That said, there are moments in every tahara where the spiritual depth of the experience is experienced as a gift. I would say that most of our volunteers have expressed that as well. It’s a gift to us to perform this mitzvah.
“I think people in general are searching for spiritual experiences as the world becomes even more chaotic and crazy. We need these experiences to keep us grounded and also to take care of our people at a moment of tremendous vulnerability for them.”
Michelle Newman, who grew up in Lynn and now lives in Beverly, is the co-founder of the North Shore hevra. After two of her sisters died, she took a course on death at her Beverly temple, and then joined the hevra. She has been trained, and is waiting to assist in her first tahara. “I’m just waiting for the phone call. I’m on the list. I’m ready,” she said.
She credits her late sisters, who passed in the last 10 years, as an inspiration for her work. “I think they opened my heart to it,” said Newman, who is drawn to the modesty and anonymity of the process of assisting in tahara. “It all makes sense that this is where I would be.”
For more information about The Community Hevra Kadisha North Shore Boston visit https://northshorehk.org.