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Pandemic Transforming Jewish Mourning Rituals

Pandemic Transforming Jewish Mourning Rituals

From care for the body to graveside ceremonies, the coronavirus has upended tradition.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Beth Moses Cemetery in West Babylon, L.I. “We are in a whole new world” of mourning, says a burial society official. Sandee Brawarsky/JW
Beth Moses Cemetery in West Babylon, L.I. “We are in a whole new world” of mourning, says a burial society official. Sandee Brawarsky/JW

When Rabbi Maurice Lamm wrote his classic work, “The Jewish Way in Death and Dying,” no one could have imagined this pandemic.

The Jewish community now faces a world of limited-attendance funerals, virtual shivas and significantly altered or suspended tahara (the ritual cleansing of the deceased). There is pressure to reconsider both the traditional taboo on cremation and the extreme difficulties in carrying out the wishes of those who desired to be buried in Israel.

These days, family members who want to take part in burying the deceased must bring their own shovel to the cemetery.

“In my 50-plus years of working in this industry, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Edward Yarmus, a longtime funeral director of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on the Upper West Side, told The Jewish Week.

Families have also had to adjust to New York guidelines calling for limited attendance at funerals, like any other gathering.

“As it is, it is so painful for the family to have the outlet for communal sharing in funerals and mourning cut off. You can’t eulogize in the comfort of a chapel; you can’t gather to offer comfort,” said Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center. “This flies in the face of everything in Jewish life about death and dying. The virus challenges everything we’re about in terms of community.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone in Israel, a network of Modern Orthodox institutions founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, recently took a groundbreaking stand on cremation, as reported in The Times of Israel.

He stated that in Europe and South America, if cremation goes forward for reasons of public health and only after all options to deter this act are exhausted by the Jewish community, the highest levels of compassion should be extended towards the families of the deceased. (Some countries are prohibiting burials for victims of coronavirus out of fear that it increases transmission.)
“This is to say that while there is no doubt that cremation is 100 percent forbidden and is nothing short of another possible tragic consequence of this terrible crisis, a family need not live in shame if this is the fate that has befallen a loved one,” Rabbi Brander told The Jewish Week, while explaining that his rabbinical network has already succeeded in avoiding several cremations.
“The highest honor that a person who isn’t alive can achieve is to help the living,” Rabbi Brander said, and that in the context of saving another life, it would be seen as “a mitzvah that the deceased is doing posthumously.” The ultimate concern, he said, is to take care of the living.
“In my 50-plus years of working in this industry, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Edward Yarmus, a longtime funeral director of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on the Upper West Side. Sandee Brawarsky/JW

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, made it clear in a brief telephone interview that he was not responding per se to Rabbi Brander’s guidelines, but said that the laws of the Torah are very clear on this.

“The answer is that cremation is not an option, whatsoever. Every Jews needs to be buried,” he said. “It’s a requirement in the Torah, without any interpretation possible.

“We bury treasure. You burn trash,” Rabbi Zohn continued. “Burning is a desecration.”

Rabbi Zohn’s group updated its website with new guidelines for performing a tahara. During the ritual, the body is carefully washed and then dressed in shrouds. Specific guidelines call on members of a volunteer burial society, or chevra kadisha, to travel to the funeral home in separate cars, use a bleach solution rather than water for the ritual washing, sanitize the body bag and take new measures to deal with issues like attached tubing.

He notes that these guidelines, which contradict what he has taught for many years, are difficult for him to recommend and distribute, but that the “Torah requires that we react to special times with special rules.”

“We want to ensure everyone’s safety,” Stephanie Garry, Plaza’s chief administrative officer, says. For the near term, she added, Plaza will only be conducting graveside funerals.

Plaza now refers families to an online casket site rather than its showroom, helps families organize graveside services and can provide a phone stand-in order to broadcast a memorial service via Zoom. Its funeral directors are working onsite, while Yarmus is taking the first calls from families from home.

“It can be overwhelming for families to make these decisions. We’ve had people who’ve died from Covid-19 whose spouse is in isolation and can’t attend the funeral,” Garry says.

Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, L.I. Barry Lichtenberg

She explains that Plaza does not have a policy about doing the tahara, and rather leaves decisions to families, clergy and the chevra kadisha group. It recommends that the members of the chevra kadisha be very mindful of distancing and follow stringent procedures for wearing PPE, personal protective gear, and disposing it.

She has seen an increase in requests for cremation.

“It’s not something we promote, but we are mindful of being of service to the community,” she said. “We care deeply about Jewish ritual at the end of life, but it is not our place, at the moment of death, to offer our opinions, unless asked.”

Honor and Comfort

David Zinner is executive director of the national organization Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), a Maryland-based educational organization dedicated to end-of-life issues. Its website includes Rabbi Zohn’s recommendations as well as its own, based on the findings of a panel of scientific experts, including physicians involved in infectious disease, public health, emergency medicine and safety as well as infection control specialists. While Zinner recognizes that individual chevras will make their own best decisions, he is suggesting that groups avoid doing tahara, at least for a while, for the safety of the team members.

The organization’s website suggests alternative rituals, like saying prayers on a Zoom call or going to the cemetery at a later time, and doing a symbolic tahara through pouring water and saying prayers.

Some suggest taking the precautions even more strongly. Ellie Barbarash, a member of the panel of experts who wrote the manual on safety precautions for chevre kaddish, recommends, “in the strongest words possible, that taharot cease at this time. This is not just because of the hazards to the people performing this holy act, but because of the hazards we pose to each other in breaking our quarantine and working shoulder to shoulder. Care and honor of the living must supersede care and honor of the dead.”

Barbarash is the Health and Safety Coordinator for a union of more than 13,000 nurses in New Jersey and Philadelphia, as well as an ordained Kohenet and a member of a Philadelphia chevra. “The protective equipment we need to keep ourselves safe, in caring for the dead, should instead be transferred to caring for the still living,” she said. “We should be transferring our protective equipment to healthcare personnel, who need it most right now.”

Andrew Kaplan, who has chaired the chevra kadisha of The Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side for more than 20 years says that his group is, for now, suspending doing tahara for the deceased in Covid-19 related deaths. Other local synagogues have done the same.

While Kaplan is very pained by not being able to perform this last ritual for Jewish Center members, he says, “the bigger issue is putting the lives of the people in the room in danger.” The chevra considering alternatives like special prayers.

“We are in a whole new world,” Kaplan says. About a month ago, in anticipation, he ordered 60 N-95 masks as protective gear for his team. They still have not arrived, but when they do, he will donate them to hospitals.

“They are saving lives. To hold these masks would be irresponsible.”

Rabbi Skolnik of Forest Hills is fascinated by Rabbi Brander’s position on cremation, which he finds “radical for an Orthodox rabbi.”

He says that in the past, when people in his Conservative synagogue had approached him about cremation, he tried to talk them out of it “until I am blue in the face. I would still advise people to go the traditional route. If there comes a time when it is simply not possible to do in-ground burial because of health considerations, we’ll deal with it then.”

Rabbi Skolnik adds, “I have nothing but respect for people who have needed to stretch halacha to accommodate what they perceive as the needs of the hour. I don’t think these times call for judgmentalism — they call for a maximum of understanding.”

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