Synagogue burial societies make loving comeback
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When Bruce Tillinger was dying of cancer, he and his wife, Barbara Kavadias, decided that they wanted their own community to perform the Jewish rituals of tahara and shmira — washing his body and then guarding it until the funeral.
“Bruce really wanted that — he cared about his own community being involved in sending him on his way,” said Barbara. “For Bruce and me, it felt right. We’re very hands-on Jews. We grew up in the age of The Jewish Catalog. We’re very involved and we have tried to live an observant life.”
They put out the word, and when the time came, Bruce was cared for as they had hoped.
Barbara Kavadias said she spoke with some of the men who had been involved in preparing and watching her husband’s body. They were very moved by what they were doing, she said, and “felt very privileged to be part of this mitzva. It was really amazing. They said we should be doing this for everyone, and that struck me.”
The experience, in December 2008, inspired Barbara to spearhead the formation of a hevra kadisha, a burial society, at her Conservative synagogue, the Morristown Jewish Center-Beit Yisrael.
On Feb. 14, the Morristown congregation became the latest in the area to receive formal training in tahara led by David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, an umbrella group for kadisha societies founded in 2000. The training, attended by about 25 people, followed a community-wide Shabbaton on caring for the dead in which Zinner participated. MJCBY has the first hevra kadisha in Morris County officially up and running.
MJCBY is following a path cut locally by Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange whose burial society began in the fall of 2008. Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell started a burial society in 2009 and was ready to serve the community in January 2010.
At all three synagogues, the ultimate goal is to not only carry out shmira and tahara but also provide support to the mourners from the time of death through the shiva period.
‘The right direction’
The earliest references to burial societies can be found in talmudic literature, the first reference to tahara in the commentaries of Rashi. Burial societies existed in medieval Europe and flourished until the 20th century.
As Jews assimilated and the modern funeral industry took over rituals associated with death, the hevra kadisha was found almost exclusively in Orthodox communities.
Over the last three-plus decades, as liberal Jewish groups have set about reclaiming traditional observances, they have also begun to embrace the notion of the burial society. The resurgence can be traced to 1975, when Arnold Goodman, a Conservative rabbi in Minnesota, wrote A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions.
Zinner suggested that the reason for the growing interest in the hevra kadisha may have something to do with its broad appeal. “It’s for people connecting with their history, people connecting with their own experiences around death in their own family, people searching for spirituality, people wanting to do hands-on work, people wanting to build community.
“The interesting part about hevra work is that it can encompass almost every aspect of Judaism, from the fervent believer to the non-believer, from the spiritual seeker to the person who likes to build a sukka and unroll the Torah and do other hands-on things.”
Zinner pointed out that for 25 years following publication of A Plain Pine Box, societies were created on an ad hoc basis. The founding of Kavod v’Nichum in 2000 brought national focus to the effort. “We have more of a central organization now, with resources and training, so it’s definitely notched things up a level,” said Zinner. He estimated that in the last two years alone, he’s done six or seven trainings across New Jersey, and many more around the country, including in Pittsburgh, Arizona, and the San Francisco area. He declined to quantify how many burial societies now exist across the country; his organization, he said, is planning to collect data later this year. “There are more and more people out there organizing. We are moving in the right direction,” he said.
When Beth El launched its group, only two burial societies were functioning in Essex County, and only one — led by Rabbi Shmuel Bogomilsky, a Chabad-affiliated rabbi — served the needs of the broader Jewish community.
Bogomilsky has welcomed the newcomers and has served as a guide for them, even providing some training.
Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, an Orthodox congregation in West Orange, also has its own hevra kadisha.
In Morristown, Jews have had only two options if they used Morris County funeral homes: use an Orthodox hevra from Monsey or Bergen County for tahara and shmira, or forego the rituals altogether.
Not every local effort has succeeded. Members of the Reform Temple Shalom of Succasunna trained with Zinner in 2003 and had hoped for a community hevra kadisha, but they ultimately did not form a society; members of Montclair-area synagogues discussed establishing a regional hevra kadisha in 2006, but that never got off the ground.
David Beyth, who spearheaded the effort at Beth El, said it takes plenty of planning and effort to launch a successful burial society. He first had the idea eight years ago when his mother died and was cared for her by her community in Baltimore.
“There was something overwhelmingly comforting to me to know my mom was guarded the entire time,” he said. When he came back from the funeral and the shiva, he spoke about forming a society with his clergy, who were supportive. But it still took a number of years. “It’s a big undertaking that requires lots of planning. You can’t just start with a handful of people,” said Beyth. That’s because there have to be enough people to do tahara and fill all the slots for shmira — the body is guarded 24 hours a day until the funeral — with little notice.
Starting a hevra kadisha in a liberal synagogue also takes some education.
“A typical Conservative Jew does not know about this tradition. They cringe when they think of a loved one being seen naked by someone in the congregation,” Beyth said. “It can take a while to reach the place where they understand it is beyond acceptable, but is a loving, caring thing to do.”
In 2008, Beth El’s rabbi, Francine Roston, launched a year of study with a Yom Kippur sermon on the rituals. It was quickly followed by a Shabbaton with Zinner, and then the training. The first requests for the group’s services came in before the calendar year was out.
Beth El’s hevra kadisha has performed tahara about seven times and shmira about a dozen. “The slots fill up in a handful of hours. There is never a shortage of people,” said Beyth.
Still, Beyth said, “It wouldn’t have happened without a big enough core group that is committed to do everything they can to make themselves available when needed.”
Derek Fields of Caldwell is behind the effort at Agudath Israel, which has provided some support for mourners but has not yet been called upon to perform tahara or shmira. He views the hevra kadisha as an important piece of a vibrant Jewish community. “We come back to religion in a serious way through the death of a family member or a person to whom we are close,” he said. “The hevra kadisha strengthens the bonds of community.”