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Jewish Death Practices:
Learning & Resources:
History and Background of Washington Area Orthodox Chevra Kadisha
Chevra Kaddisha presentation Wednesday May 5, 1999
At Young Israel Shomrei Emunah
Prepared by Morris Wisotsky and Reverend Ernie Yehuda Friedman
The care, consideration and respect that are bestowed upon the living must be accorded the dead as they are attended, prepared and escorted to their final abode on earth. To assist in the preparation and burial of the dead is one of the greatest mitzvot in our faith says Rabbi Lamm in The Jewish Way on Death and Mourning.
The association that is organized to perform this service is appropriately named Chevra Kadisha, the Holy Society. It was one of the first associations to be established in the traditional Jewish community of the past. Membership in the Chevra Kadisha has always been considered a unique privilege. The members must be Sabbath observers, of high moral character, and conversant with the laws and customs that are the responsibility of the office they occupy.
The society was already known in Talmudic times. Even scholars and sages did not consider it beneath their dignity to attend to the dead. Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi in 1564 in Prague laid the foundation of an efficient burial society that became the model of all similar bodies. During the Middle Ages it became customary for the Chevra Kadisha to devote one day each year to fasting and prayer. At the close of this day, which was usually held on the seventh of Adar, date of Moses' death, a seudah or festive meal was organized for them.
Tahara, the rite of the ritual washing of a corpse before burial, is derived from the biblical injunction: "As he came so shall he go". When man is born he is washed and when he dies he is washed (taken from Ecclesiastes 5:5 and 5:15). The Mishnah mentions the practice of washing the body. The ceremony of Tahara, as well as other burial details, is not mentioned in the Bible.
Other panel members will discuss detail procedures of the Tahara. I want to turn now to the background and history of the Chevra Kadisha in Washington.
My source of information is Reverend Ernie Yehuda Friedman, Shammos or Sexton at Ohev Sholom Synagogue. There was an ongoing Chevra Kadisha society in Washington going back to when Jews came into the area. In 1953 it consisted of Beth Sholom, Ohev Sholom, Talmud Torah Congregation (later merged into Ohev Sholom), Bnai Israel and Ezras Israel. Ohev Sholom had 50 members in the burial society including about 25 women. Of the 50 there were about 10 regulars who were available at all times. At this time there were about 600 members in Ohev Sholom.
The two funeral homes that existed were Danzansky on 14th street and Goldberg on Georgia and Kansas Avenues. Danzansky had a permanent person on staff who assisted in Taharas; Goldberg did not. All taharas were done at the funeral homes. Records of taharas were kept in a book maintained by the Chevra called a Pinkis. An annual dinner was held for the Chevra supported by the Shuls to give recognition to the members of the Chevra.
At the end of the 1950s, as a result of aging membership and demographic changes, the Chevra membership dwindled. The problem became acute. A city-wide proposal was put forth by the three existing shul organizations to consolidate the Chevra Kadisha. But it did not succeed - mainly because of control problems and Halachic oversight. In the early 1960s, Rev. Friedman organized a community wide Chevra without any Synagogue council oversight. He trained members by taking them to perform taharas and by giving classes. No fee was charged for Shul members and a $25 fee was charged for non-members. Today the non-member fee is $100. At this point there were about 10 regular members in the Chevra. People involved beside Rev Friedman were Mr. Zaltzman, Mort Taragin, Josh Rosenbloom, Mr. Rishe, and Dr. Lionel Rabin.
Questions that arose were usually directed to Rev Friedman. The policy of the Chevra was no Jew was to be denied a tahara whose family requested one.
In the late 1960s the women's Chevra became depleted. Taharas were performed by the Baltimore society, which involved much effort because they had to be driven to the District and back to Baltimore. This situation became unwieldy and again Rev Friedman helped organize a women’s society. Six women formed the society. They were trained and counseled by Rev Friedman. In fact, at the beginning he would wait outside the tahara room to be available if questions came up. Before this group formed, when it was difficult to obtain women to do a tahara, two women were on call and paid $25 each for doing a tahara. This situation did not last too long.
The small group of women organized by Rev Friedman functioned during the 1970s. At the end of the 1970s Linda Rishe took charge and revitalized the women’s society. It was called the Ladies Chevra Kadisha of Washington (now known as the Chevras Nashim of Greater Washington) and was without synagogue affiliation. Funds that were received from taharas mostly went to the support of the community-wide mikva.
During the late 1970s and 1980s there was an increased awareness among young professional people, contrasted with prior older business owners, to become involved in the Chevra Kadisha and perform taharas. This increased awareness led to the formation of a community-wide Chevra Kadisha society in the late 1980s under the umbrella of the Rabbinical Council of Washington with Rabbi Kalman Winter serving as the Halachic overseer. The Chevra Kadisha has continued to operate in this fashion until the present.
What kind of individual is eligible to serve as a Chevra Kadisha member? Any Jew who has a feeling for performing mitzvot. What is the profile of the Chevra Kadisha members? All kinds. I have done taharas with rabbis, doctors, engineers, scientists.
The Chevra Kadisha performs services in addition to taharas - such as assisting family members in arranging funerals including burial in Israel, arranging for Shmira, assisting in chapel and gravesite services, and Shiva services at homes. At present all members are volunteers.
I want to recognize Rev Yehuda (Ernie) Friedman's 30 years of dedicated and devoted service to the Chevra Kadisha of Greater Washington and to the Washington community. He was the catalyst that kept the Chevra going. We wish him and his wife long and healthy years. When I asked him what he would like to see for the Chevra in the near future, he said, bringing more people into the Chevra to perform taharas and other services. That is why we are here tonight.