Jonathan Schachter’s Jewish identity is largely tied to his involvement in the New Community Chevra Kadisha, one of Pittsburgh’s two Jewish burial societies. When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the societies’ practices, Schachter was at a loss.
Performing those rites “is a significant part of my Judaism. It’s a very integral, very important, very special, meaningful part of my Yiddishkite, and it hurts to have to be faced with this, but I have to be certain that there will not be any adverse medical reactions that I’m going to have or that I might unintentionally spread.”
Three weeks ago, Schachter, president of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, joined members of NCCK, including medical professionals and public health experts, on Zoom to discuss handling rituals concerning the dead in light of COVID-19.
At that time, some participants expressed a willingness to continue the practice of taharah (ritual purification), while other members respectfully wished to refrain from further activity, explained Malke Frank, co-founder of NCCK.
During the conversation, in response to details then shared by the Centers for Disease Control, members of the chevra kadisha questioned the safety of traveling to funeral homes given social distancing recommendations, and whether it was even responsible to use personal protective equipment when “healthcare workers need those items,” added Frank.
“I can’t speak for others in the chevra but that’s when I decided,” said Schachter. “There are four people that I’m concerned with, and that’s my immediate family, so I decided to step back from this for the time being until we can be sure that there is a significant degree of safety for me, and also for the members of my chevra. And 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.”
In the days that followed, members of NCCK, as well as those from Gesher Hachaim Jewish Burial Society, Pittsburgh’s Orthodox chevra kadisha, tracked updates regarding COVID-19 and continued discussing possible options for local practices.
“We are in daily contact with experts in the field, both in terms of chevra kadisha work and public health,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, Gesher Hachaim’s president and rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation. “We are continuing to do what we have to do with adjusting our procedures as necessary and that’s all I can say.”
Leaders of NCCK expressed a similar sentiment.
“We have been doing our best to both figure out how to honor what we consider the important and sacred traditions surrounding Jewish death rituals but also keeping in mind the importance of public health, and that has been very, shall I say, anxiety provoking to figure out,” said Patricia Cluss, co-founder of NCCK.
Shrouded in anonymity but cloaked in holiness, the chevra kadisha traces its origins to the Babylonian Talmud where it is recorded that nearly 1700 years ago Rav Hamnuna arrived at a place called Darumata. While there, Hamnuna heard the public blasting of a shofar signaling a resident’s death. Despite the mournful pronouncement, the townspeople continued working. Surprised by their seeming disregard, the rabbi called out against them only to discover that his chastisement was erroneous. In Darumuta, designated groups tended to the dead, and the deceased for whom the shofar was blown was already being cared for by another body, a sacred society that served as an early model for groups today.
The history of the chevra kadisha “has been around for a couple thousand years, but the Prague chevra really structured the way of doing it,” said Cluss.
The Prague chevra kadisha was founded in 1564. Along with their contributions, elements of today’s Jewish burial rites are described in “Ma’abar Yabbot” an early 17th century Italian work by Aaron Berechiah ben Moses ben Nehemiah of Modena, explained Schachter.
Included within the Kabbalistic text are suggested prayers and directives pertaining to post-mortem moments. As instructive as the writing is, as well as what’s found in more recent rabbinic materials, finding historical guidance on how to address matters like COVID-19 has been challenging, according to Schachter.
“Certainly, when HIV was new, and we didn’t know much about that, there was a lot of conversation about how to continue the tradition while being safe, but nothing on this scale,” said Cluss.
In light of the pandemic, both of Pittsburgh’s chevra kadisha groups sought guidance from national organizations. NCCK participated in a webinar and follow-up conversations with representatives from Kavod v’Nichum, an organization that provides information and training to bereavement committees. Gesher Hachaim members shared information from The National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), an organization whose mission is to assist Jewish burial societies with “defining, establishing and achieving the highest degree of respect for the dead as described in Jewish law.”
Last week, both national groups disseminated updated guidelines and recommendations.
On March 24, Kavod V’Nichum issued notice that “our panel of experts now strongly recommends that during these periods of widespread transmission of COVID-19, and especially when communities are told to limit personal exposure, chevrah kadisha groups should not do any form of taharot (ritual purification).”
On March 25, NASCK shared a series of guidelines, including precautions recommended by the CDC and OSHA, to decrease possible exposure from the deceased and “to protect from potential transmission between chevra members.”
“On a personal note, I must mention that these guidelines are very difficult for me to recommend and distribute. In so many ways, they contradict what I have taught for many years. However, the underlying basis of all we do is Toras Emes and Minhag Yisroel. Torah requires that we react to special times with special rules,” wrote Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, founder and president of NASCK and director of the chevra kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. “I believe it is appropriate to feel pained that we are abbreviating procedures that give kavod (honor) to the meis (deceased), even though it has become necessary to do so.”
“This is a very serious and a very sad situation,” echoed Rabbi Elisar Admon, of Pittsburgh’s Gesher Hachaim. “We’re still doing taharot, but each case is being judged differently.”
As the preceding weeks have demonstrated, new information generates new realities but moving forward the plan is to perform “spiritual taharot,” explained Frank.
Such a process would require that after the deceased’s body is wrapped within a bag and placed within a casket, staff from local funeral homes would offer aid through a “layover,” while members of NCCK observe via Zoom.
“They’ll unfold each piece of tachrich (simple white burial shroud) and put it on top of the body bag” and chevra kadisha members will read relevant and occasionally substituted liturgy, said Frank. “I think it’s important for people to understand that we’re trying to fulfill the mitzvah of taharah in the best way that we can considering the limitations we have, and we’re doing it with kavana (intention), and with love, and with words of comfort for the deceased.”
“We’re in a time where people who want to get washed for purification cannot. People can’t sit shiva, or say kaddish, as we normally would, and for us as Jews it feels as though God has sent us away from his territory,” said Admon.
“This is extremely difficult,” agreed Schachter.
“I’m very devoted to the goals of the chevra, which are to provide end of life Jewish traditions for people and families who desire to have that, so the thought that we would not be able to do that, or to do that in the all-in way that we usually do, has been sad,” said Cluss. Also troublesome is that “we’re also people, and people in families, in the community, and how do we balance? What’s the right balance of safety and following tradition? That’s all added up to a whole lot of thinking over the last two weeks, and particularly the last week. That has not been easy to do, but it has felt crucially important to do so.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.