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'It feels like we cheated them out of something'

After tweaking rituals during pandemic, a US Jewish burial society makes amends

A chevra kadisha in Pittsburgh returns to the graves of over 100 people who died in 2020-21 to pray and ‘apologize’ for being unable to perform preparation for burial in entirety

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle of Pittsburgh's New Community Chevra Kadisha pours water as part of an October 3 ritual completion of tahara ruchanit, or spiritual cleansing. (Adam Reinherz/ Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA)
Dr. Jonathan Weinkle of Pittsburgh's New Community Chevra Kadisha pours water as part of an October 3 ritual completion of tahara ruchanit, or spiritual cleansing. (Adam Reinherz/ Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA)

PITTSBURGH (Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA) — Tahara, the act of washing and purifying the deceased, is paramount to Jewish burial. So when the coronavirus pandemic descended on the United States in March 2020, members of a Pittsburgh-based Jewish burial society devoted to the practice made a difficult decision.

Given fears of COVID-19 transmission, members of the New Community Chevra Kadisha stopped traveling to funeral homes and performing the sacred act of tahara in person. Instead of physically washing and purifying a body prior to burial, members gathered on Zoom for what they called a “spiritual tahara,” a virtual service of readings, song and prayer, with men tending to men and women to women.

Between March 15, 2020, and June 21, 2021 — when the group resumed in-person practices — chevra kadisha (ritual burial society) members completed more than 100 spiritual taharas. During this time, many other Jewish burial societies across the country were similarly figuring out how to perform their sacred rituals safely.

But while the group was satisfied by its approximation of the traditional ritual during a time of crisis, something nagged at its members. Jewish burial is often called chessed shel emet, the true kindness: Washing a body, purifying it and placing shrouds on the deceased is performed by the living with no ability for repayment.

When those acts of kindness are completed “in some diminished way, it feels like you’re cheating somebody out of something,” said Dr. Jonathan Weinkle, a Pittsburgh physician and longtime chevra kadisha member.

So on October 3, 21 members of the burial society traveled to Beth Shalom Cemetery, located just outside Pittsburgh, to make amends. Standing side by side, the group recited biblical and Talmudic passages, chanted Hebrew phrases, recited names of the deceased and poured water for each person who at the time of their death was unable to be washed according to Jewish tradition, in a 40-minute ceremony organized by Weinkle.

Along with publicly stating their burial society’s rationale for adopting spiritual tahara, or tahara ruchanit, the group offered an apology: “While the decisions we made were taken with every consideration of pikuach nefesh — saving lives from danger — they nonetheless had consequences that made many of us feel we, and the meitim (deceased) we cared for, had lost something precious. It is to acknowledge this loss that we gather here today.”

Burial society members explicitly asked for forgiveness.

“We, the Chevra Kadisha, ask your forgiveness for each departure we had to make from traditional practices in preparing your body for burial,” they read. “On the road, up from Egypt, and through the wilderness, we have done our best to serve you, to be with you and to give you the burial befitting a child of Israel. We pour this water on your grave as a tikkun [rectification] and completion, as a final act to bring purity and love to your transition.”

New Community Chevra Kadisha members gather at the Beth Shalom Cemetery in Shaler Township, Pennsylvania. (Adam Reinherz/ Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicla via JTA)

Weinkle then distributed a list with names of more than 100 people who received tahara ruchanit. Society members took turns reciting each name before pouring fresh water from jugs onto the cemetery’s ground — spilling water onto the earth, one person at a time, was intended to mimic the act of shoveling at a funeral. Before disbanding, the group recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Rabbi Doris Dyen, whose involvement in the group dates back more than 12 years, described the ceremony as a rare occurrence.

“It’s unusual to stand in a cemetery and say ‘It’s so good to see you,’” Dven said. “But after almost two years of not being able to work the way we do day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out,” she said it was powerful to stand together and “hear the murmur of other voices.”

It’s unusual to stand in a cemetery and say ‘It’s so good to see you’

Patricia Cluss, who co-founded the New Community Chevra Kadisha in 2004, also said it was comforting being with others after such a difficult period. Even members who were unable to attend reached out with messages of solidarity.

“Everybody feels like it’s been such a hard year, just in general, and then such a hard year for trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do for this,” Cluss said.

For Lucas Grasha, the October 3 service was a “restorative” chance to reconnect with burial society members he barely knew. Grasha, 25, joined the group in February 2020. After attending a dinner the next month, Grasha’s connections went digital.

Coming together to honor the deceased is “really impactful for us because we have not had that physical connection, and we can at least repair some of that loss,” he said.

Grasha is one of Pittsburgh burial society’s youngest and newest members, spurred to join by the deaths in a year of his mother and both grandmothers.

“That connection with a very visceral understanding of death really motivates me,” he said. “I basically just want to return that sort of mitzvah [good deed] and favor to people who have passed on.”

Illustrative: A worker from ‘Hevra Kadisha,’ Israel’s official Jewish burial society, dress in full protective gear rests at a special morgue for people who died from COVID-19 in Holon, January 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Standing feet away from Grasha was Marcie Barent, a resident of the nearby suburb of Forest Hills who had reached out to Cluss about joining the burial society just a week earlier. She said she had been nervous about coming but participated in the readings and pourings, at one point experiencing shock when she heard the name read aloud of a classmate she hadn’t realized had died.

“It can be a very emotional thing,” Barent said about participating in a Jewish burial society. But she said the event solidified her desire to begin participating in the tahara ritual herself. “It’s going to be a real honor for me,” she said.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Click here to get the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle’s free email newsletter delivered to your inbox.

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