My father, Myron (z”l), used to tell me the worst day of his life was his bar mitzvah for a surprising/amusing/unexpected reason.
When my father was four years old, his father passed away. His family, which included his mother and older brother, moved into a tiny house right behind their synagogue, where my grandmother also worked. Once my dad turned 13 and had his bar mitzvah, it became a regular morning occurrence for a man to yell out the synagogue window, “Myron, we need you for minyan.” (Back then a minyan required 10 men ages 13+.) He hated it, but off he went.
What my father realized later in life was how important this mitzvah is.
Our people have so many meaningful rituals and traditions: lighting Shabbat candles…immersing in a mikvah…participating in the Passover seder…breaking a glass at a wedding…keeping kosher...and more. Each with its own particular significance.
In fact, my favorite Jewish ritual is brit milah (bris – circumcision). You have to understand, I am the person who wants to be in the front row. I sit there in wonderment knowing that for thousands of years this ritual has been performed on Jewish boys at the age of eight days. In fact, for my son’s bris I wanted to do the final cut. The mohel said, ”No problem.” My wife said, “NO WAY!!!”
Several weeks ago, a community member wrote me and said, “My own observation is that the younger generation of Jews is more about abandoning religion than finding newly creative ways to practice it. One telling thought I have whenever we light yahrzeit candles in our parents’ memory is that even though our kids love us, I am fairly certain the practice will end with our generation.”
I was struck by the comment and it made me think.
The following day, I met with the leadership of the Chevra Kavod haMet, one of Portland’s two “holy societies” (along with the Portland Hevra Kaddisha) that prepare the deceased for burial according to Jewish tradition. The meeting focused on the need for more and younger volunteers to help with the rituals around death. There was an article in this week’s Jewish Review about this.
Hearing their call for volunteers, I offered my assistance to help. Jewish tradition regards it as exceptionally meritorious to perform this mitzvah, particularly because so many people are (understandably) reluctant to do so.
The highest act of gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) is that which is done for the dead, for there can never be any thought of repayment. (Tanchuma Vayachi 107A)
Recently, I volunteered with Chevra Kavod haMet, participating in the act of tahara (purification), which involved the ritual cleaning of a deceased person. I joined with four other men to perform this mitzvah. Every aspect of the process was done with dignity and care. I know many of you will be squeamish about this, but all I can say is it was beautiful, spiritual, and comforting all at the same time.
The opening prayer we recited set the tone:
“Preparing someone for burial requires from us the utmost in care and respect for that individual, for how we treat our dead reflects how we should treat everyone. Even before we enter the tahara room, we are aware of the holiness of our actions and the respect we will give the deceased.”
The prayer at the conclusion, once we placed the deceased in the casket, made me feel, well, so Jewish:
“(Name), we stand here having completed our work. Please know that we have done our best to lovingly treat you with dignity and care to prepare you for your final journey. We ask your forgiveness for any indignity you may have suffered in our efforts to usher you from this world to the next. We acted in good faith and did this work for the sake of all that is holy.”
That is exactly what we did. In Jewish tradition, no matter who the person is they will be treated with honor and respect. I cannot express to you how moving the entire process was for me. And, to know so many dedicated people in the community do this holy work – quietly and modestly – makes my heart warm.
If you are interested in learning more or to volunteer, contact the Chevra Kavod haMet or the Hevra Kaddisha (men click here and women click here). They need additional volunteers as this tradition must continue for generations to come.
In addition, the Chevra Kavod haMet will be hosting two virtual seminars on how you can be prepared to make practical and personal decisions about the time before death, the moment of passing, the ritual preparations for burial, the interment options, the stages of mourning, and beliefs in the afterlife. Join them on either:
Sunday, December 11 at 10:00 a.m. – Zoom Link
Tuesday, December 13 at 7:00 p.m. – Zoom Link
Our religion and people have so many beautiful mitzvot, rituals, and traditions you can partake in. Expand your horizons and let’s continue to learn about and practice them with joy for generations to come.
I would be remiss if I did not share. On December 6, 1987, 35 years ago, an historic event in Jewish history happened in Washington. D.C.. "Freedom Sunday" drew an estimated 250,000 American Jews, including me, to show our support for the release of Jews from the Soviet Union [now Russia]. The goal was to increase the pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Jews to practice their religion without restrictions, as well as allow them to freely immigrate to Israel, the United States, or elsewhere. It worked, including hundreds coming to Portland! And, as I have shared in the past, it was this "aha" moment that inspired me to become a Jewish communal professional.
Chanukah begins Sunday evening, December 18. Click here to learn more about upcoming programs and celebrations in our community. Shop for your Chanukah “goodies” at OJMCHE's Museum Shop, the newly opened Jewish Oasis in the Pearl District, the ORA/MJCC fair (until 3:00 p.m. today), the Moishe House maker fair, or synagogue gift shops around the community. More information can be found in the Jewish Review on page 7.