After tweaking rituals during pandemic, Jewish funeral society in Pittsburgh made amends
PITTSBURGH (Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh Going through JTA) – Tahara, the act of washing and purifying the deceased, is essential for the Jewish burial. So when the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, members of a Pittsburgh-based Jewish funeral society dedicated to the practice made a difficult decision.
Due to fears of transmission of COVID-19, members of the new Chevra Kadisha community have stopped going to funeral homes and performing the sacred act of tahara in oerson. Instead of washing and physically purifying a body before burial, members gathered on Zoom for what they called a “spiritual tahara”, a virtual service of readings, songs and prayers, the men attending to the men and the women to the women.
Between March 15, 2020 and June 21, 2021 – when the group resumed their in-person practices – members of chevra kadisha performed over 100 spiritual taharas. Meanwhile, many other Jewish burial societies across the country also sought to perform their sacred rituals safely.
But while the group was content with its approximation to traditional ritual in times of crisis, something harassed its members. The Jewish burial is often called chessed shel emet, a true benevolence: washing a body, purifying it and placing shrouds on the deceased is carried out by the living without the possibility of reimbursement.
When these acts of kindness are performed “in a diminished manner, it we have the impression of cheating on someone for something“said Dr Jonathan Weinkle, a Pittsburgh physician and long-time Chevra Kadisha member.
So on October 3, 21 members of the funeral society went to Beth Shalom Cemetery, located just outside Pittsburgh, to make amends. Standing side by side, the group recited Bible and Talmudic passages, chanted Hebrew phrases, recited the names of the deceased, and poured water for each person who, at the time of their death, could not be washed according to the Jewish tradition, in 40 minutes. ceremony organized by Weinkle.
In addition to publicly exposing their funeral society’s rationale for adopting spiritual tahara, or ruchanit tahara, the group apologized: of us feel that we, and the (deceased) meitim we took care, have lost something precious. It is to recognize this loss that we are gathered here today.
Members of the funeral society explicitly asked for forgiveness.
“We Chevra Kadisha apologize for every deviation we have had to make from traditional practices to prepare your body for burial,” they read. “On the road, from Egypt and through the desert, we have done our best to serve you, be with you, and give you the proper burial place for a child of Israel. We pour this water on your grave as tikkun and completion, as a final act to bring purity and love to your transition.
Weinkle then distributed a list with the names of over 100 people who received tahara ruchanit. Society members would take turns reciting each name before pouring fresh water from the pitchers onto the cemetery floor – spilling water on the earth, one person at a time, was intended to mimic the act shovel during a burial. Before going their separate ways, the group recited the Kaddish of Mourning.
Rabbi Doris Dyen, whose involvement with the group dates back over 12 years, described the ceremony as a rare event.
It’s unusual to stand in a cemetery and say, “It’s so good to see you,” Dven said. But after almost two years of not being able to work as we do “day after day, month after month, year after year,” she said it was powerful to stand together and “hear the murmur of other voices. “
Patricia Cluss, who co-founded the new Chevra Kadisha community in 2004, also said it was heartwarming to be with others after such a difficult time. Even members who were unable to attend sent messages of solidarity.
“Everyone feels like it’s been such a tough year, just overall, and then such a tough year trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do about it,” Cluss said.
For Lucas Grasha, the October 3 service was a “restorative” chance to reconnect with members of the funeral society he barely knew. Grasha, 25, joined the group in February 2020. After attending a dinner party the following month, Grasha’s connections went digital.
Coming together to honor the deceased is “really impactful for us because we haven’t had that physical connection, and we can at least repair some of that loss,” he said.
Grasha is one of the youngest and newest members of the Pittsburgh Funeral Society, prompted to join in the one-year deaths of her mother and two grandmothers.
“This connection with a very visceral understanding of death really motivates me,” he said. “Basically, I just want to return that kind of mitzvah and favor to the deceased. “
Steps from Grasha was Forest Hills resident Marcie Barent, who had contacted Cluss to join the funeral society a week earlier. She said she had been nervous to come but participated in the readings and installments, at one point in shock when she heard the name read aloud from a classmate whom she didn’t realize she was dead.
“It can be a very emotional thing,” Barent said of his involvement with a Jewish funeral society. But she said the event reinforced her desire to start participating in the tahara ritual herself. “It will be a real honor for me,” she said.