On the innumerable lessons about kindness and responsibility that participating in a hevra kadisha can provide
By Rabbi David Weiner / Knesset Israel
In March, the Knesset Israel community lost Don Sugarman, who had served for several years as the chairman of the congregation’s cemetery committee. This devoted group is one of four at Knesset Israel engaged with tending to the deceased and comforting the bereaved. Together, they are known traditionally as a hevra kadisha, a holy society. The work of each group – those who prepare the body for burial, those who watch it, those who dig and bury, and those who prepare the meal of consolation – is intense and meaningful. That at Knesset Israel volunteers provide all this support is a statement of our community’s foundational values that I find especially inspiring. But my connection to this holy work is also personal.
The first time I washed a meit (the respectful Hebrew word used when speaking of the deceased) before burial was in the winter of 2007. Five men had gathered in the hallway of the Hardage-Giddens funeral home, a 1970s era chapel next to a church in suburban Jacksonville, Florida. Just 26 years old, I was a young father and a green rabbi, less than half the age of anyone else in the room.
When I first arrived in the community months earlier, I had asked to join the hevra kadisha so that I could understand the work. Before they would say yes, I had to reassure them that I was intending not to stand in judgment but only to learn. Only then did the chairwoman explain the importance of knowing my own limits – how I could always say no to a specific circumstance, how I would never be asked to tend to a meit whose funeral I would later perform, and why I should recuse myself if I had any doubts.
Still, I vividly remember the transition when I crossed the threshold for the first time. The pale orange wallpaper of the chapel gave way abruptly to chipped green tile. Through another door at the end of the hall, small square tiles covered a sloped floor. Here aging wooden cabinets lined all the walls to chest height and a stainless-steel sink was mounted high on the wall, rigged to empty through a long clear plastic hose. Harsh fluorescent light seemed to amplify the incessant whirr of a powerful air conditioner. There was a strong smell of soap and disinfectant and notes of something else, what I’d later come to understand to be human being.
My eye was drawn to the center of the room, where I saw a white sheet outlining the vague shape of a man lying on a table. I remember the uncomfortable silence, the not knowing exactly what would come next. No one had explained to me the tradition of the hevra kadisha to work in silence. One of the men pointed me towards some gloves and an apron. A loose-leaf prayer book I had never seen before, crumbling at the edges, was thrust into my hands. Then, just three words: “Rabbi, you read.”
Because of my young back and flexible schedule, they would frequently call me in. As the months went by, I learned to wash and dry, to turn and lift, to cover the face and pelvis of the meit whenever possible to protect his dignity, to ask forgiveness of the meit before and after the process. I learned how a shroud looks and feels and what it takes to put one on a meit – with motions akin to those I might use to dress the baby I would find waiting for me at home. I left town before I learned to tie the special not-quite-knots, a tradition passed through generations of hevra kadisha the world over. But I did learn to snip one tzitzit (fringe) off a man’s tallit (prayer shawl) before tucking it around his shoulders one last time; to set a white kippa on his head and lower the bonnet; to sprinkle earth from the land of Israel into the casket. I learned about silence, presence, shared purpose and the deep meaning of hesed shel emet – the truest of loves.
Skills aside, tending to the dead over the course of two and a half years shaped me in one especially profound way. Just as I witnessed how a baby enters this world as just a body and mind and soul, I learned deeply something we all know yet rarely think about: that you can’t take it with you – or to put it more intimately, that I’ll leave this world carrying nothing with me. In the end there’s just a body, lovingly tended to, a white shroud, and a plain wooden box. I need to think carefully about what will endure and the blessings that will survive me – a legacy for family, for friends, for students, for society.
I am grateful to my teachers from that first afternoon in Jacksonville, Dr. Joe Honigman and Scott Zimmerman, of blessed memory, and the meitim we tended to together. I am also grateful to Ed Skoletsky and Don Sugarman, of blessed memory, chairmen of Knesset Israel’s Cemetery Committee, for the innumerable lessons about kindness and responsibility that they conveyed to me. Finding this touchstone early in life, a place I can visit whenever I feel adrift, has proven to be a deep and enduring blessing. I understand that it is my responsibility to carry these traditions and this wisdom forward for the next generation.
Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield.