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'We ask forgiveness from the dead': Why Jewish volunteers are washing bodies in a pandemic

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA -- It used to be that David Kushner would receive a call to report to one of the area's Jewish funeral homes once every few weeks. In the pandemic, his phone has buzzed every single day, sometimes more than once.

Then, Kushner, 40, must rally the other members of the Chevra Kadisha B'nei Moshe. This all-volunteer group, which is not affiliated with any one synagogue or denomination, is the largest of the handful of chevra kadishas, or burial societies, that operate in the region. Driven by faith and reverence for tradition, its members gather to carry out the ritual cleaning and dressing of bodies before burial. For devout Jews (or even lapsed ones), these are their final respects.

This work has always been emotionally taxing. Now, it poses a degree of physical danger.

Kushner and the other men suit up in full-body hazmat suits, from face shields, goggles, and masks, down to disposable booties. Working in groups of four, they have condensed the ceremony, normally about an hour, into a brisk 30 minutes, or 15 minutes if the deceased is COVID-19-positive. That includes reciting prayers, rinsing the deceased with fresh water, dressing him in a clean linen shroud, and placing him into a wooden casket atop earth from Israel. (Female chevra kadisha members attend to the bodies of women.)

"During the pandemic, a lot of families weren't able to sit with their loved ones in the hospital to say goodbye," said Kushner, who has performed the ritual cleaning, known as tahara, on hundreds of strangers, and many of his own friends and loved ones, including, last November, his father-in-law. "To know that their final physical moments in this world were done ... the same way that was done to their parents and their grandparents for generations, going back thousands of years, is really a rock-solid source of comfort."

Yet, whether to continue this work during the pandemic has been a source of debate and disagreement. Chevra Kadisha B'nei Moshe consulted rabbis, epidemiologists, and infectious-disease specialists before forging ahead. They asked members older than 60 to step back, reducing their rolls from about 50 volunteers to a core group of 15.

 

Another local group, the Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha, decided to suspend operations.

"We love the ritual, because it really honors the person who died," said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and a founder of that group. But they could not see a way to continue without violating social-distancing guidelines.

"There is no Jewish ritual that is so important that one should do it if it could possibly kill you," she said.

Patricia Quigley, a funeral director at West Laurel Hill Cemetery and a member of the Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha, said it's just one of many mourning rituals that have been disrupted there, from the Jewish tradition of graveside services, in which families help shovel soil into a grave, to the Sikh funerals that bring large crowds into the crematorium.

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