It may not be the most popular committee at the synagogue.
But rabbis say volunteering for a chevra kadisha is one of the most important and selfless things one can do.
A chevra kadisha is a group of people who perform the ritual blessing and cleansing of a body before a Jewish funeral. Typically composed of three to five volunteers, there are two chevra kadisha groups at each synagogue because they are separated by gender. Men tend to men, while women tend to women.
Literally translated, “chevra means this collegial group. Kadisha means this holy collegial group – those two words are Aramaic, actually – a collegial group of holiness,” said Rabbi Hayyim Kassorly of Congregation Or Ve Shalom in Brookhaven.
To be part of a chevra kadisha, one must have a flexible schedule that can defer to death. When volunteers are called, they have to be ready to show up within 24 hours to prepare a body for burial.
“I have a lot of respect for the people who take this on. It’s not always an easy job and one where there’s not a lot of glory or recognition. But it’s a very meaningful act of service,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.
According to Jewish tradition, a body must be buried as quickly as possible after death. The chevra kadisha performs a ritual cleansing and blessing of the body before dressing the deceased in the simple, white shrouds that Jews are traditionally buried in.
“They have a great responsibility because they are literally preparing us for life after life,” Kassorly said.
Rabbis say Judaism holds chevra kadishas in high regard.
“It’s the ultimate kindness because it’s a kindness that a person can never repay,” Heller said. “I know they are never going to return the favor to me, so it’s doing a kindness for the sake of doing a kindness.”
Rabbis and volunteers emphasize that there is a great sense of respect and dignity that goes into the burial preparations. And the people who volunteer for chevra kadisha say they take comfort knowing they can help the dead find peace.
Barbara Wolfson, co-chair of the women’s chevra kadisha at Congregation B’nai Torah, said she began volunteering in 1996. She was inspired to help others after her brother died from a long battle with melanoma.
Wolfson said after watching her brother suffer, she remembers feeling a sense of peace when he passed away, knowing that his suffering was over.
“There’s a peacefulness, and maybe that’s what I’ve found comforting,” Wolfson said. “It’s very sacred, I suppose, and a feeling of comfort that this person is now going to rest.”
It’s also a quiet and humble kind of service.
Kassorly said volunteers rarely talk about their service with the chevra kadisha and often, the names of the volunteers are kept private.
“It’s supposed to be so secretive because it’s done for no credit. You can’t be thanked,” Kassorly said. “So the idea is if you don’t know the person’s name you can’t thank them.”
But once a year, volunteers from Atlanta-area chevra kadishas are honored for their service at a city-wide dinner.
Fred Glusman, the chaplain at The Carlton Assisted Living and Memory Care in Sandy Springs, said he organized the first chevra kadisha dinner in 1983.
Glusman said it is common in many Jewish communities to have an annual dinner to thank chevra kadisha volunteers, but he said Atlanta is the only city he knows of that brings together volunteers from all the synagogues in the area.
“Too many times we are divided in certain areas of worship, and this is one area where everybody is on same wavelength,” Glusman said. “I think it’s important for reform, orthodox and conservative (Jews) to meet each other and see that everybody is doing this same act of kindness.”
Steve Schaikewitz, who volunteers for the chevra kadisha at Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody, said he likes feeling connected to tradition.
“As a Jew, you know this is the way it’s been done for thousands of years,” Schaikewitz said. “You’re part of a tradition. You’re one of a long line.”
Heller said chevra kadishas are confronted with death in a very personal way.
“We as a society tend to keep a distance from death,” Heller said. “A lot of people are not used to being hands-on with the experience of death, which is a mixed blessing. For people who participate in chevra kadisha, it creates a different kind of appreciation for the sanctity of life and the meaning of death.”