Now that Rabbi Daniel Wasserman has won his suit with the commonwealth, enabling him to perform Jewish burials without a funeral director, the Chevra Kadisha of Pittsburgh, of which he is a director, is taking steps to turn the burial practice into an “enduring institution.”
One of those steps is already very visible. The chevra kadisha, which is under the auspices of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh, now has a physical space on lower Murray Avenue to perform tahara and shmira (washing and watching) of the dead. The lease was signed a few weeks ago and the renovation work on the space is almost complete.
Additionally, Wasserman, together with other members of the chevra kadisha, are planning to expand the organizational structure of the effort as well as educate the community about traditional Jewish burial practices.
“While the legal battle was going on, I purposely let it be very much a one-man show because I didn’t want to put anyone else in harm’s way,” Wasserman said. “Now that we’ve won, I’ve already taken steps to expand the structure. There’s going to be a lay committee … a coordinator, so when the calls come in, I don’t have to get all the calls.”
He’s also asked his colleagues within the Orthodox community to provide education and guidance to members of their congregations when there are deaths in their families.
Wasserman made national headlines in 2012 when he filed a federal suit against the state Board of Funeral Directors, alleging he was being threatened with prosecution merely for performing traditional Jewish burial practices, which he argued were legal in Pennsylvania, and that the law that was selectively enforced.
After weeks of negotiations between both sides, Wasserman withdrew the suit after the commonwealth acknowledged his right to perform the burials.
To punctuate its authority to perform its own funeral without a funeral director, the chevra kadisha posted a copy of the commonwealth law stating its rights to the door of its new digs.
Chevra kadisha is Hebrew for “holy society.” In Jewish communities, these societies meet in small groups when there is a death to ritually wash, clothe and watch over the body until the funeral.
But burying the dead as a community, without the assistance of a funeral home, also is part of the tradition.
“My first focus is to get this program, not up and running because it is up and running,” Wasserman said, “I want to re-establish it as an enduring institution.”
He said he sees the chevra kadisha as having two divisions: a tahara division and now a funeral division.
He sees the chevra kadisha’s practice of performing its own funeral rites as an effort to reclaim the ancient traditions of the Jews, but for it to succeed, it must involve re-educating the Jewish community on these traditions.
“The Jewish community in America took a detour the last few decades, and what we are doing is not at all radical. What we are doing is ancient Jewish tradition — thousands of years. Even in Pittsburgh, if you go to the ’20s and ’30s, it took a detour, so I would very much like to re-awaken that spirit.”
Re-educating the community about its funeral practices will take time, he noted. “We haven’t re-educated them [the community] yet. Again this is not new; this no more new than keeping Shabbas. … So it will take a long time to re-educate people.”
Wasserman said the chevra kadisha has performed 31 funerals since it began the practice in 2009. The nonprofit organization generally charges $2,000 per funeral, all of which goes to covering expenses.
“This isn’t the reason we do it, but I won’t apologize for the thousands of dollars in cost differential by virtue of the fact that we’re a nonprofit,” Wasserman said. “If you don’t have the money [for a funeral], this way you don’t have to beg; if you do have the money, take the money you would have spent and give it to Jewish day schools.”
For now, the chevra kadisha is concentrating on growing the practice within the Orthodox community. In June, Wasserman spoke at the North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, which was attended primarily by Reform and Conservative Jews who belong to their chevra kadishas.
“I was dealing with a receptive audience that was familiar with the general idea,” he said. “There were a lot of questions that sounded like the foundation of the questions was, ‘how do we do this?’ ”
And in Pittsburgh, some leaders from the more liberal streams of Judaism are expressing interest in traditional burial practices.
Rabbi Ronald Symons of Temple Sinai, for one, wants to learn more about what Wasserman is doing.
“I believe we have overly commercialized and delegated funeral rituals to professionals,” said Symons, who sits on the New Community Chevra Kadisha. “I believe families of deceased have rights to traditional Jewish norms even in a progressive and pluralistic perspective.
“My hope is as families engage in the time-honored rites of preparing for burial and burial,” he added, “that we’re able to help them to connect beyond the business side, to connect spiritually.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)