At 20, New Community Chevra Kadisha preserves a history
Narration for the livingJewish burial society

At 20, New Community Chevra Kadisha preserves a history

For two decades, a small group of Pittsburgh's Jews have buried their own. On Adar 7, members told the story.

A placard bearing a quote from former NCCK member Jonathan Schachter was placed on each table at the Adar 7 dinner. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
A placard bearing a quote from former NCCK member Jonathan Schachter was placed on each table at the Adar 7 dinner. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

By the time they kindled yahrzeit candles, 20 years had passed.

Table by table, seated inside Temple Sinai’s social hall, representatives of the New Community Chevra Kadisha struck matches and transferred flames to the small wicks. Members of the Jewish burial society rose, enumerated Pittsburgh’s deceased and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and Traveler’s Prayer.

Lighting candles, chanting orisons and learning Torah are common practices for Jewish burial societies on Adar 7. For hundreds of years, chevra kadishas have marked the day with ceremonies, fasts and evening meals.

According to rabbinic literature, Moses died on Adar 7. The Midrash states that unlike those buried by a community of their peers, the great prophet’s interment was attended to by only God; symbolically, the Hebrew date is one of rest and celebration for Jewish burial societies worldwide.

Adar 7 fell on March 17 this year. In accordance with their traditions, NCCK members gathered that Sunday evening to eat, interact and reflect. Special attention was paid to the group’s 20th anniversary.

The passage of time necessitates a recapitulation of history, NCCK co-founder Malke Frank told 85 attendees.

So, with toasts and vignettes, participants approached a lectern, recalled their service and articulated the group’s story.

NCCK begins

“When I think about growth, there were five or six of us sitting around Pat Cluss’ table,” Nancy Levine said of the society’s origins.

NCCK officially began with a small cadre in 2004, but its seeds of inception can be traced two years earlier, co-founder Pat Cluss explained.

NCCK co-founder Pat Cluss shares the group’s history. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

In 2002, Cluss read an article in Reform Judaism magazine about death and Jewish burial. Intrigued by the quiet and sacred work, Cluss mentioned her fascination months later during a coffee outing with Frank. The fellow Squirrel Hill resident said she, too, was drawn to the ancient practices and had even reached out to Pittsburgh’s Orthodox chevra kadisha about joining its group.

Cluss and Frank recruited several friends to meet with Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai.

From that first conversation with Gibson, Cluss produced four pages of typewritten notes.

“All of the things we would need to think about and do, and people we would need to talk to,” she said.

“What I tried to do, by the way,” Gibson said of that encounter, “was raise all the questions from all the angles that would have to be dealt with.”

A humorous inquiry was posed at the time about the group’s name.

“What were we going to call ourselves at 20 years old when we weren’t new anymore,” Gibson said. “We’re still rolling along.”

During its early years, NCCK met as often as twice a month to study, train and enlist members. With assistance from the late David Ryave of Ralph Schugar Chapel and David Zinner, the former executive director of the national organization Kavod v’Nichum, NCCK increased its understanding of classic Jewish burial practices while developing local and national recognition, Frank said.

In 2005, NCCK hosted its first Adar 7 dinner. Two years later, the women’s division performed its first taharah (posthumous ritual cleansing). In 2008, the men’s division followed.

“At that time, we only had 15 members,” Frank said.

The nascent group continued gathering, studying and performing taharot. Members increased involvement with Kavod v’Nichum, a group committed to “honoring death in life.”

International attention

In 2018, NCCK and the Pittsburgh Jewish community garnered international attention. During Shabbat morning services, on Oct. 27, 11 Jews from Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations were murdered; six other people were seriously injured.

“On that tragic day, we lost a devoted member of the chevra — and my husband — Jerry,” Miri Rabinowitz said.

The timeline of events on Oct. 27 spanned from hearing there was a shooting, to arriving at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill and waiting hours alongside others for updates, Rabinowitz recalled.

“I remember sitting ramrod straight, numb and unable to breathe or speak,” she said. “Though there had been no official release of the names of the lives lost, by the afternoon I knew that Jerry was dead. My only thought, my biggest fear, and my greatest sadness was that Jerry was all alone,” Rabinowitz said. “Sometime around nightfall, Dean [Root] approached and whispered in my ear that the chevra was at the building. Hearing that I took my first deep breath — as a wakeup call had rushed over me — Jerry wasn’t alone.”

Rabinowitz paused.

“I am forever indebted to the chevra,” she said. “For in the midst of your own horrid grief, you rose to perform many mitzvot, many miracles of gemilut chessed, acts of true loving kindness.”

Continuing history

Jewish communities have buried their own for generations.

The Babylonian Talmud describes the existence of an early chevra kadisha when recording an incident involving Rav Hamnuna, an early fourth-century leader: After arriving in Darumata, the leader heard a shofar blast announcing a local resident’s death. To Rav Hamnuna’s surprise, townspeople continued working. Distressed by their seeming disregard, he chastised the group — only to be informed that in Darumata designated entities tended to the dead. Those who continued working, he learned, were not among that sacred society.

As Jews moved throughout the Diaspora, they remained committed to serving their dead through locally formed groups.

NCCK co-founder Malke Frank speaks during the Adar 7 dinner. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

In 1564, the Prague chevra kadisha was established by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. Its practices — along with the Jewish burial rites described in “Ma’abar Yabbot” an early 17th-century Italian kabbalistic work by Aaron Berechiah ben Moses ben Nehemiah of Modena — are largely followed to this day.

The challenge of relying on antiquated texts for modern situations, however, arose during COVID-19. With little known early on about the disease or its spread and risk of infection, Jewish burial societies debated how best to continue operating.

In March 2020, Jonathan Schachter, an NCCK member, agonized over whether to continue performing taharot.

“This is something that I’ve been involved with since 2007. It is a significant part of my Judaism. It’s a very integral, very important, very special, meaningful part of my Yiddishkiet, and it hurts to have to be faced with this,” Schachter said at the time.

Schachter, who died in 2022, told the Chronicle in 2020 that NCCK members gathered on a Zoom call in mid-March 2020 to discuss the situation.

Following the meeting, Schacter decided he could not continue performing taharot.

“I’m responsible for me, but I also feel a responsibility for three other people in my family that I just can’t take the chance,” he said. “I feel horrible about it. I feel like I’m letting the community down. I feel like I’m letting the family of the maitim (deceased) down. I feel like I’m letting my fellow chevra down, but we’re in completely uncharted waters.”

Within several weeks, NCCK devised a manual for what it called Taharah Ruchanit (spiritual purification).

The process, Cluss noted, was performed in partnership with colleagues from local funeral homes: After a deceased’s body was wrapped in a bag and placed inside a casket, funeral home staff provided a layover.

Each piece of tachrich (simple white burial shroud) was unfolded and placed above the body bag while NCCK members observed and recited liturgy over Zoom, according to Frank.

The burial society performed more than 100 spiritual purifications between March 15, 2020 and June 21, 2021 — when the group resumed in-person taharot.

Still pained by the earlier period and their inability to perform the mitzvah of Jewish burial according to tradition, NCCK members traveled to Beth Shalom Cemetery in Shaler Township on Oct. 3, 2021, to “amend and complete” their work.

Over 40 minutes, the group read biblical and Talmudic passages, chanted Hebrew phrases and recited names of the deceased, who — due to pandemic-related concerns — had not been washed before burial.

In an act of apology and seeking forgiveness, according to NCCK member Jonathan Weinkle, water was poured for each of the dead.

Following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and pandemic, NCCK was looked to as a model, Cluss said. National regard for the local entity has continued, as “we just completed our own gender expansive taharah manual that we will certainly share with other groups as this initiative expands.”

Cluss serves as Kavod V’Nichum’s co-president, where she helps influence the chevra kadisha movement nationally.

Experience and expertise gained from NCCK is immeasurable, she said: “In 20 short years, we have transformed from a very small number of people — who partly knew what we were doing — to a large, experienced and committed group who perform our work in the community with skill, and most importantly, kavana (intention).”

It’s that purposefulness that drives the group and furthers its growth, members  explained.

Attendees stand while the names of the deceased are read on March 17. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

NCCK has 73 members.

Downtown resident Yitzhak Cohen joined last month.

The decision, he told the Chronicle, was spurred by a classmate’s death.

“One of my friends from high school, David Gordon, passed away in the Israeli military about eight years ago,” Cohen said. “It’s something that is still on my mind a lot — partly because I wish I was there to bury him. For some reason, I thought that doing this might bring some closure. And so far, it has in a way.”

‘They are now a part of us’

Tables inside Temple Sinai were sparsely decorated for the Adar 7 dinner. Along with a yahrzeit candle and glass vase containing fresh flowers, each table had a small placard. The sign read, “Friends, it has been an honor to do this mitzvah with you.”

Schachter used to end each taharah with those words, Rabbi Ron Symons said.

From a nearby seat inside the social hall, Monroeville resident Alan Iszauk picked up a matchbook. He removed a tiny, red-tipped match and ignited a flame.

Iszauk, an NCCK member for nearly 15 years, said the chevra kadisha’s work is labor-oriented and difficult, but there’s a beautiful element to “this wonderful mitzvah.”

“There is more emotion, coming together, beyond the task. Initially, it didn’t matter to me, but I look forward to it now,” he said.

Before the yahrzeit candles on each table burned, Cantor Julie Newman strummed her guitar.

Attendees joined in song: “In the rising of the sun, we remember. In the blowing of the wind, we remember … So long as we live they too shall live. They are now a part of us. They are now a part of us.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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