Reclaiming the mitzvah of tahara

Reclaiming the mitzvah of tahara

In January, at least 10 members of the Glen Rock Jewish Center will learn an important mitzvah, training to perform tahara for the deceased.

“This involves ritual purification and preparation of a body before burial,” explained the synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Neil Tow, noting that the deceased must be ritually washed and dressed.

The rabbi, who is working to create a chevra kadisha group – a burial society generally composed of volunteers – said he was spurred by a phone call he received during the summer from David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum.

Rabbi Neil Tow

The Maryland-based group, whose Hebrew name translates as “honor and comfort,” works with chevra kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, helping them form new burial societies, train prospective members, and identify resources about Jewish bereavement practices.

“He asked if our synagogue would be interested in pursuing this,” said Tow. “It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while. I immediately felt this was the right thing for us to do and good direction for us to be going in.”

While most Conservative synagogues, like the Jewish Center, do not have a chevra kadisha, “it’s more common than I thought,” said Tow, noting that a Conservative shul in Caldwell recently trained its members in tahara. He said he has also received a call from a Somerset synagogue asking if its members could join the upcoming training session in Glen Rock.

“I spoke [with Zinner] about how to share this idea with the congregation,” said Tow. “It’s not like trying to organize a new Chanukah event. It’s a much different kind of Jewish activity than most of us think about.”

The rabbi pointed out that not only does tahara have a very strong emotional component, but “for many people it could inspire fear.”

His plan, he said, was to float the idea as part of his Yom Kippur sermon.

“It worked out well,” he added, noting that Yom Kippur is rich in symbolism “that puts us into some contact with our mortality – for example, fasting, the wearing of the white kittel, and confessional prayers that echo the Vidui recited on one’s deathbed. I thought there was a natural connection.”

Tow said he also tied the idea into Kol Nidre pledges and vows, asking, “How can we act on these vows and use our time to make our lives more meaningful?”

The idea of a chevra kadisha formed a “bridge, engaging in an important mitzvah and reclaiming that mitzvah for our community.”

The rabbi said he spoke with members about tahara, realizing that many congregants were not familiar with the practice. In doing subsequent research on the issue, he learned that those who request the service from a funeral home generally pay about $300.

“We want to provide it for members free of charge,” he said.

Tow said he has been encouraged by the response. So far, four men and five women have volunteered to engage in training and form a chevra kadisha.

“I’m hoping to recruit some more,” he said. “I hope this will be core group that will teach others.” Volunteers range in age from the late 30s to the mid-50s.

On Jan. 15 and16, Zinner will visit the synagogue as a scholar-in-residence. Tow stressed that the effort must include an educational component.

“It’s a two-part effort, doing it and making people aware of it. What is it? Why do we do it? Why is it important for the community to provide this? What impact can it have?”

He wants congregants to see the initiative as “building a sense of lifelong connection and taking care of our people in a pure act of giving.”

“It’s a different kind of mitzvah,” he said. “It’s physically oriented but it has an intellectual aspect, requiring study and preparation.”

On Jan. 17, volunteers will undergo a full day of training in tahara, joined by Tow, who will serve as part of the shul’s chevra kadisha.

“I want to be part of the effort and show my personal commitment to the project,” he said, noting that volunteers will visit the room in a local funeral parlor where tahara is done. He is hopeful that “once everyone has completed training in January and has walked through the process, we will feel confident enough to react and be available when the need arises.”

“There’s a lot for us to learn,” he said. “We’re just on the verge of getting this off the ground. I hope that as current volunteers learn more and share their experiences, others will participate as well.”

Congregant Arthur Pazan – a Glen Rock councilman and a former consultant for Nonni’s Food Company and plant manager at Manischewitz in Jersey City – was among the first volunteers and is “excited about learning another mitzvah.”

“I’ve always been an active Jewish American,” said Pazan, who attends synagogue regularly and participates in many of the shul’s outreach programs. “I’ve done a lot of mitzvot, but not this.”

Pazan, who said he researched the issue after the rabbi proposed it, called the venture “a way to do the right thing and help others. It adds to the spirituality, honor, and respect for the person who passed away [as well as] his family. It’s an extension of living a Jewish way of life.”

“It’s all about respect, kavod. It really broadens our horizons. I’m also doing this out of respect for my grandfather, who came from Poland and started a burial society for people from his area. We’re blessed in the United States that we can keep our traditions going.”

Congregant Merri Kapiloff, who has also volunteered for the chevra kadisha program, said that while she still doesn’t know fully what will be expected, she was moved by the rabbi’s sermon “and I like the idea that the community should take care of the community,” rather than relying on strangers.

Kapiloff, whose background includes working with sick children in the hospital, said she has some experience “being with them at the end. It’s one of those mitzvot I felt I could do and should volunteer for,” she said. “Not everyone would be comfortable doing it.”

“It’s a very personal decision,” she said. “You have to feel it’s something you want to do and can do.”

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