Portland's community Jewish burial society is no secret

The Jewish Review
Jaimie Harper has worked in geriatrics and end-of-life care for over 20 years. For much of that time, she hadn’t experienced the next step; what happens in Jewish tradition after death. She knew about it but hadn’t witnessed it or met the people who perform it. 
“I thought, honestly, it was like a secret society, and you had to have like some special invitation to be part of it,” she said. “I had a lot of experience with the end of life, and this was one part that I felt like was untouchable to me.”
While there is a society, it’s not a secret, and no invitation, expertise in Torah nor particular level of “holiness” is required. 
“You just have to want to show up and be present,” Harper said.
The “society” is a chevra kadisha – the Hebrew translates to “holy society” but in modern usage, specifically refers to a burial society. 
These societies are established to perform the ritual of tahara, the washing of the body and its preparation for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition. In this process, three or four members of the chevra gently wash and dry the body of the deceased while reciting prayers over it. After washing, water is poured over the body as an act of ritual purification. 
Harper sees this process as akin to immersion in a mikvah. 
“The body is completely covered in water as if it’s their last immersion,” she said.
There are two chevra kadisha operating in Portland. The Portland Hevra attends to the Orthodox community. Harper is a member of Chevra Kavod HaMet, which translates to “The Society for Honoring the Dead,” which identifies itself as Portland’s community chevra kadisha, which draws its membership from across Portland’s Jewish community and makes space for all levels of religious observance as well as supporting varying gender identities.
No invitation is required – the group is looking for volunteers, in fact. 
“The only requirement is to be a Jew,” Sharon Fendrich, coordinator of Chevra Kavod HaMet, explained. 
Chevra Kavod HaMet was founded in 1979 through the work of Congregation Neveh Shalom’s Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, z”l. Seeking to take care of his congregation’s own deceased, he asked a group of CNS members to take up the study of Jewish end-of-life rituals. By the next year, Chevra Kavod HaMet was providing tahara and shmira (the accompanying of the body from the time of death until burial) for CNS families. By 1994, the society was also serving families from Havurah Shalom and Gesher. 
Today, Chevra Kavod HaMet serves families from, and its board consists of members from, Congregations Beth Israel, Kol Ami, Neveh Shalom, P’nai Or and Shir Tikvah as well as Havurah Shalom and the unaffiliated Jewish Community. Approximately 40 volunteers help form the ad-hoc assembled teams for each tahara – an email goes out shortly after a passing, and members respond if they are available. 
While many chavarot perform tahara the night before the funeral, Chevra Kavod HaMet typically does their work early in the morning due to access issues at the site of more than 90 percent of their taharoth, Holman’s Funeral Home in Southeast Portland. 
The idea of secrecy around chavra kadisha stems from the circumstances of Jewish communal living.
“It had to be a little bit more of a secret because we were in tiny little villages,” Fendrich said, “and family members are not supposed to know who has prepared their loved one because it makes their relationship forever uncomfortable. So, you were selectively invited in by a leader in the community.”
The sense of secrecy has deepened as society has grown more uncomfortable talking about death, dying and the end of life, and those processes have been moved out of common view and common conversation.
“[Death] just became something that people didn’t talk about. So therefore, death wasn’t taught about anymore anywhere,” Fendrich explained. “And especially I think after the Holocaust, we don’t talk about death anymore.”
Fendrich didn’t even know what a chevra kadisha was until her grandmother died in 2011. The immediate aftermath of her passing was dramatic and lacked compassion, she said, so she told her rabbi that she would like to see her grandmother again. 
“He said he would ask the chevra and I still didn’t know what that meant,” she said. She ended up seeing her grandmother’s body just before the tahara.
“I was completely taken that these people who didn’t even know her were about to give her all of this love,” she said. “So, I said, when the time comes, I’m going to do this work.”
She moved back to Portland in 2014 and connected with Sandy Axel, who was coordinating Chevra Kavod HaMet at the time. Axel had been involved in the group since the mid-2000s and now leads the Shroud Crowd, the group within Chevra Kavod HaMet that sews the traditional Jewish burial garments and shrouds use by the society.
Axel’s journey to Chevra Kavod HaMet began when her infant child passed away and she was forced to confront death head on. 
“We need to take care of each other,” she explained. “My hands are needed; my skill set is needed. That’s why I do this work.”
Jewish burial garments are a five-piece set: a head covering that is different for men and women, a shirt, footed pants, a robe and a belt. The garments are meant to resemble the garb that the High Priest would don when entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Yom Kippur each year. A large, square shroud is used to wrap the dressed body up neatly – in burials that do not use a coffin, two shrouds are used.
“When a baby is born, the baby is washed and swaddled,” Axel said. “So, too, at the end of life, we lovingly wash and swaddle people who are leaving this place and going on to whatever comes next.”
The garments are made from plain white cloth, linen traditionally, cotton in modern days. In Portland, the burial garments – tachrichim  in Hebrew – used by Chevra Kavod HaMet since 2016 have all been made from recycled bedsheets donated by the Sentinel Hotel. 
Many in Axel’s family who are not Jewish have remarked to her about the beauty and meaning they see in Jewish rituals around death and burial. 
“I really believe that Jewish death practices are the most supportive for mourners and makes the most sense,” Axel said. “Over the millennia, we’ve found ways to comfort those who remain and care for this holy vessel that held a soul. The soul has now left that house and gone on to the next place, but we still need to treat this holy vessel, this body, with care and love and respect.”
Care, love, and respect are at the heart of every chevra kadisha. Traditionally, during tahara, those performing the ritual uncover only the parts of the body they are immediately engaged with preparing and apologize for the intrusion. Other than this, the recitation of prayers, and any other speech directly related to the task at hand, the tahara is conducted in silence.
As part of joining Chevra Kavod HaMet, volunteers meet with a current member of the society, and then witness a tahara. It’s a process that leaves quite an impression.
“You’re kind of accompanying the soul,” Harper said. “There was something that I felt, something tangible about placing the person into the coffin and covering them and preparing them and then putting the lid on. It’s very powerful.”
“After you do your first one, you are forever changed,” Fendrich said. “There’s no going back. It’s not about seeing death. It’s really about cradling the dead. Everybody says it’s a deep experience.”
Much as the family doesn’t know who performs the tahara, the members of the team typically don’t know the person they are preparing, though this isn’t a rule. Regardless, the members of the chevra kadisha approach the task the same way.
“It doesn’t matter who they were in the world,” Harper said. “We care for each person the same.”
While religious observance or knowledge of Torah are not requirements to join a chevra kadisha, there is a certain something required. 
“It takes a compassionate giving heart,” Fendrich explained. “When we are in that room, there’s a covenant that is different from any other because doing tahara is considered one of if not the highest acts of lovingkindness.” 
Chevra Kavod HaMet is seeking volunteers, both for tahara teams and for the Shroud Crowd. For more information about the society, their work, and how to be a part of it, visit chevrakavodhamet.org. 
For Fendrich, it’s important for the community to know that the society is there, not simply to attract volunteers, but so that people know that they will be supported in their worst moments.
“What we care about the most, without question, is that our community knows that when the end comes, and they are in deep, deep mourning,” she said, “there is someone in your community who is completely giving of their heart.”


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