Chevra Kadisha of South Jersey educates community about Jewish burial



Rabbi Chananya Kramer, president of the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Burial Society of South Jersey.

Growing up in Queens, death was not something Rabbi Chananya Kramer ever considered a pet topic. But today, as president of the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Burial Society of South Jersey, he’s found himself chatting about death–and more specifically, Jewish burial–more often than not. Facing a Jewish rate of cremation in the U.S. of roughly 40%, he said, it has become his mission, along with his fellow Chevra Kadisha board members, to raise awareness about taharot (ritual preparation of the body) and the significance of a Jewish burial.

“The first goal of the Chevra Kadisha, which is still current, is to provide people with a Jewish burial,” Kramer, who is also the principal of Foxman Torah Institute in Cherry Hill, said. “But our new goal is to educate people about it–not at the time of death or in a time of need, but beforehand. Many people haven’t had the privilege of hearing about Jewish burial, or the honor and comfort it brings to the Jewish soul.

The tahara, or “purification,” is a process of “preparing the body and soul for the transition to the next stage,” Kramer said. It begins by washing the body and immersing it in water, similar to using the mikvah, and then dressing the deceased in white shrouds called tachrichim, which symbolizes purification from sin.

“The shroud is like the white garments the high priest wears when he asks to atone for the sins of the Jewish nation on Yom Kippur,” Kramer explained. “This is how we want to meet our Maker.” The process takes roughly an hour, and “we do it with modesty and a tremendous amount of respect. There’s no talking, no idle chatter,” Kramer said. (The Chevra Kadisha usually performs them at Platt Memorial Chapels, which is “extremely helpful and supportive,” said Kramer, but a tahara can be done in any funeral home.)

At the end of the tahara, the body is placed in a casket, traditionally a simple pine box with no adornments. “It symbolizes that we don’t take any of our material possessions to the grave,” explained Kramer. “It’s a lesson for those of us who are still alive.” He also noted that wood is biodegradable and returns the body to the earth in the most natural way. “When a person is buried in metal or plastic, it slows down that process.”

It is not unusual for Jews, even the most observant Jews, to have little to no familiarity with these customs. “It’s an uncomfortable topic,” Kramer said. “Who wants to talk about it? Even Orthodox Jews, myself included, don’t always know about it. And those who do know don’t know what it’s about because they haven’t witnessed it.”

Heading the outreach for the Chevra Kadisha is Yael Davidowitz, a nurse practitioner from Cherry Hill, who became involved in response to a movement from the National Association of Chevra Kadisha in New York to educate the American Jewish community. As a healthcare professional, Davidowitz is comfortable discussing end-of-life issues. “During regular physicals, we ask patients, ‘Do you have a living will? A healthcare proxy?’” she said. But there is no such comfort talking about death in the wider culture. “People don’t talk about death. I think that’s part of the trend [toward cremation],” said Davidowitz. “From the research I’ve done, it’s not a Jewish trend, it’s a trend of the general population, so the Jewish community is just a part of it. I think the cremation industry promotes it as an eco-friendly, cost-effective, quick, clean way to treat the deceased. It also grows out of a place of fear of death, a cultural shift away from respecting and valuing the elderly, and a focus on youth and progression. There’s a lot of good things about that, but in their wake is a disconnect with the past and the generation before us who gave up a lot so that we could have what we have today.”

Part of the Chevra Kadisha’s outreach efforts include a new website, choosejewishburial.org, which serves the entire South Jersey Jewish community, as well as anyone who wants to learn more about the subject. “The website will be a useful educational tool and resource for anyone logging on from anywhere in the world,” Davidowitz said. “It’s very robust. You can learn about end-of-life issues, mourning, Kaddish, and look up chevra kadishas anywhere in the world.”

The Chevra Kadisha is also developing educational workshops that will be available to all synagogues and Jewish groups in the area. The goal, said Davidowitz, is simple: “We want people to talk about this, to think deeply about how they want to be treated after their deaths. We want them to be informed and to speak to their children, their spouses, and their rabbis. We want to give information to people who have to make a decision when that decision wasn’t made ahead of time. We want to make this part of the conversations that people have.”

Davidowitz can attest that those conversations do make a difference. She once knew of a middle-aged woman and her husband who planned to be cremated, which they’d put in their will, because she thought that cremation was the most environmentally friendly choice. “But a friend told her, ‘Actually, the ashes of cremation have no DNA. They don’t contribute anything back to the earth,’” Davidowitz said. “Environmentalists promote a natural burial in biodegradable materials, no metal or plastic or anything that would retard the body’s return to the earth. Just having that information, the woman and her husband did a 180. Before, they had made a decision that was based on a feeling, not based in fact. Just having that information changed their decision.”

Whatever a person’s preference, the Chevra Kadisha of South Jersey wants to provide the Jewish community with information to make an informed decision, and to ensure a kosher tahara for all community members after their deaths. “It’s a really big mitzvah, burying a fellow Jew,” Davidowitz said. “It’s a huge opportunity to do the highest level of kindness for someone, a Chesed Shel Emet, a kindness that can never be repaid.”

The mitzvah also speaks to Rabbi Kramer, who says it brings him “a sense of comfort, a sense of reality, a sense of learning to deal with death and not banishing it from my mind. It also gave me a sense of purpose. I’m going to die one day, so let’s make the most of my time in this world.”

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