Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chevre Kaddisha Alive!

After JFSNM:  As Abq Jew first reported in late January (JFSNM Closes Its Doors), the Jewish Family Service of New Mexico ceased operations as of Friday, February 1, 2013.

Abq Jew reported in April (Opening A Doorway) that - with the Holocaust Survivors Support Group and the Jewish Care Program - things are starting to look up.

In this article (published in the May issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link) by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, former Director of the JFSNM Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program, we see that the Chevre Kaddisha is also continuing its important work
Albuquerque Chevra Kaddisha Continues
to Serve the Jewish Community

By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz

Members of the Albuquerque Chevra Kaddisha met on Sunday,  April 21 to reaffirm our commitment  to doing the holy work of preparing  the bodies of Jews for proper burial.

After the sudden dissolution of Jewish Family Service of New Mexico (JFS), which had housed the chevra kaddisha for the past 28 years, there were doubts in the community about whether the chevra kaddisha would continue.  Without an organized plan, and in the first few weeks after JFS’ demise, dedicated volunteers came together to do this mitzvah.  Led by Chaplain Linda Friedman, and supported by loyal members of the chevra  kaddisha, we performed 11 taharot in  the first three months of 2013.

When the group met in April, we discussed a wide variety of logistical and ritual issues.  A number of  members volunteered to assume  responsibility for some of the administrative tasks.   All the members  stated their continued commitment to undertake this mitzvah and to reach out to their friends and acquaintances to spread the word about this sacred work.

Since the work of the chevra kaddisha involves actions to which most people have a reaction of aversion,  fear, or disinterest, why are a group  of Jews so dedicated to this mitzvah?   Why do so many families, formally  affiliated with congregations or not,  desire this ritual for their loved ones  at the time of death?  Why might you,  the reader, consider learning more  about the work of the chevra kaddisha, attend training, or perhaps join  this sacred society?

When someone you love dies, it is appropriate and natural to continue to care for them, to desire that their body be treated with dignity, respect, honor and love.  The ritual of tahara (purification) undertaken by the chevra kaddisha, does exactly that.  Jewish tradition refers to the concept as kavod  ha’met, honoring the deceased.

What do we do?  After receiving information about the death of a  Jewish person from the funeral home,  clergy or relatives, a designated  member of the chevra kaddisha calls  other trained members to see if they  are available to serve.  For the sake of modesty, male members of the chevra  kaddisha work with men who have  died; females with women.

Teams of four to six people gather at the funeral home, say a few prayers, don protective garments, and gather the required supplies.  We check the funeral garments, white multi-piece items of clothing made of cotton or linen, quite similar to those worn by the High Priest at the time the ancient Temple stood.  We then gently cleanse the body of the deceased, modestly, uncovering only parts of the body at a time, avoiding any appearance of impropriety.  Cleansing is done quietly, solemnly, respectfully and lovingly.

We then perform the ritual purification, where a clean white sheet  is held over the deceased, like a chuppah (wedding canopy) and a measured amount of water is gently poured over the person, while the team recites a Hebrew verse about purity.  Chants or quiet singing sometimes accompany the pouring.

The team members use soft towels to dry off the deceased before dressing them in the funeral garments.  When they are completely dressed, we carefully transfer them into their coffin,  their final resting place.  We place  broken shards of pottery on their eyes  and mouths, indicating the finality of  death.  We sprinkle earth from Israel  over them, connecting them to the  land of their ancestors.

Then, we speak to the person.  We apologize for any awkwardness or errors, thank them for the privilege of helping them at this most fragile time, wish them well, and ask that their memory be a blessing.

After closing the coffin, we do a few final prayers, and thank each  other.  We leave the room, each time permanently changed, moved by the experience, and grateful for the gift of life.

All the members of the chevra kaddisha started out with doubts, moved through them, and are now very willing to talk to others in the community about their experiences.

Families interested in pre-planning a tahara for themselves or arranging one for a recently deceased family member, irrespective of an affiliation with a temple or synagogue, can get further information by calling Chaplain Linda Friedman at 263-1668.

You can also take this a step  further by becoming a chevra kaddisha volunteer. We welcome Jewish  men and women, ages 18 years and  older, to consider performing this  profound mitzvah.

Interested women  may contact Chaplain Linda Friedman at the above number; interested men may contact Sam Sokolove at (505)348-4458.

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