Body and Soul
The library of The Jewish Center in Princeton was buzzing with activity, and Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs was in the midst of it: “Chevra Kadisha, The Holy Society,” announced the imprint on her blue-and-white T-shirt, and “Carrying out the sacred mitzva of our Jewish tradition to honor the deceased and comfort the mourners.”
That was the spirit behind the activity at hand an all-day workshop on Jan. 7 sponsored by the Mercer Community Women’s Chevra Kadisha. The independent group of 18 women most of them members of The Jewish Center or Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor is dedicated to the mitzva of preparing the bodies of the dead for burial according to Halacha, or Jewish law.
The day of learning included text study, networking, the screening of a video, discussions about outreach and education, and presentations by two experts on hevra kadisha practices: David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), a Columbia, Md.-based organization that provides information and training for hevra kadisha groups across North America, and Jackie Stromer of Teaneck, who has been involved in hevra kadisha work for some 25 years.
Zinner and Stromer offered insights and information about shmira, accompanying the body; kavod hamet, treating the body with respect; tahara, the ritual washing and purification of the body; and tahrihim, the white shrouds placed on the body before burial.
The workshop, part of a renaissance and reorganization of the local hevra kadisha, was designed for both current and prospective members, according to Dinerstein-Kurs, who has coordinated the group for the past five years.
A member of Beth El, Dinerstein-Kurs has been involved in hevra kadisha work for 20 years. She also serves as the region’s Jewish community chaplain under the auspices of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.
“It’s multipurpose,” she said, referring to the workshop. “We want more people to be members, and we want community members to be more aware…so that people whose family members die will know to request the hevra and rabbis will encourage people to have the hevra.”
Dinerstein-Kurs’ partner in coordinating the women’s group, a member of The Jewish Center who wishes to remain anonymous, also stressed the importance of creating increased awareness in the community about the work of the hevra kadisha.
“In the past, it’s been kind of a secret society,” the woman said. “I think what we’re really trying to do is to keep the tradition going. It’s really a beautiful way to honor people in our community.”
In fact, Zinner said in an interview, over the past 30 years, there has been a very strong revival of hevra kadisha societies outside of Orthodox communities, where the practice has rarely waned. He estimated that there are now some 1,000 hevra kadisha societies based in congregations and Jewish communities across the continent. At a conference last year organized by Kavod v’Nichum, 70 percent of participants were non-Orthodox.
“I think there’s a thirst for spirituality and a recognition that we have a responsibility to the members of our society who die and their families,” he said. “Many people are looking for a way to get in touch with some of those values and, for many people, this is it.”
Fran Zeitler of Princeton has recognized that responsibility ever since she attended a class on hevra kadisha at the National Havurah Summer Institute in 1990. She brought the idea back with her to The Jewish Center, and she’s been a member of the local hevra kadisha she helped to found ever since.
“The most I can give is to give comfort to someone,” Zeitler said with emotion. “It’s to comfort the soul and honor the body.”
Fay Abelson of Princeton has also served on the local hevra kadisha from the beginning. “I was taught it’s the holiest activity in which a Jew can participate,” she said. “It’s a self-contained experience. I always find it difficult when I go there. I wish I didn’t have to do this. But I always come away feeling like a slightly better person and feeling good about myself. I like the feeling that because we have this kind of a group, it will be a group of my peers who will be doing this for me.”
Stromer, a member of several burial societies in his community, said in an interview that preparing the dead for burial is his way of giving back to the community. “It’s the final deed of charity you can do for someone,” he said. “It’s something you do without any expectation of compensation. And it’s the way the Jewish community should say goodbye to members of the community.”
In a very real sense, Zinner said, his work as an educator and a community organizer of hevra kadisha is about empowerment.
“A lot of this is about…helping people to gain confidence about something they perceive as difficult,” he told New Jersey Jewish News. “But it’s really very simple, and when they understand the simplicity of it, what they find is a whole different level of spirituality that many of them have never experienced before.
“Sometimes, the simplest experience is the most spiritual experience watching a sunrise, or washing a dead body,” he said. “When you walk out of a room after washing a dead body…it has this amazing impact to force you to appreciate life. You don’t wonder about death anymore. What you get when you work with death a lot is, you appreciate life.”
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