Tag Archives: Hevra Kadisha

Reeling and Rounding for Reuven

Reuven Moore clowning around in a children’s tunnel at the zoo. Photo by Sheryl Reinman

My dear friend Reuven died tragically in early August of 2019. His Hebrew name was Reuven Uriah. Born Ronald Moore, he was 61 years old. These are the dry facts, but I want to talk about the wet ones; the ones that make the tears flow and have left so many of us wondering and sad.

I need to talk about how many miraculous events have happened around his death and following his death. These stories are the ones that are a testament to his spirit and to the Holy energy present in everyday folks doing good. His life is also something to honor and speak about. Reuven lived his life humbly and with so much kindness and enthusiasm. He was interested in all things green and growing and all creatures two legged or four legged. He was always into music and loved Jewish people and history. He was full of bouncy energy, like a boy in a man’s body. He was on the spectrum and although he described himself as autistic his brain injuries were also the result of severe beatings from his childhood. These are more wet facts.

Reuven navigated his injuries and his differences with the help of  so many folks. Why are some people able to solicit kindness and others not? Reuven’s behavior could be irritating, due to his brain injuries and how they manifested. Nevertheless, he was more interested in helping people than in being helped. He was always singing and dancing and getting folks to enjoy something outside. He would offer to take people on walks in the wilds of Humboldt County, along the cliffs in Trinidad, and in the Redwood Forest.  He loved to swim in the ocean, lagoons or rivers. Happiest outdoors, he gamboled about like a mountain goat.

In the Jewish community, he was lucky enough to have a member of Temple Beth El as his landlord for over twenty years. This mensch (good person) gave Reuven a great deal on rent, so that he could live on the pittance he got from being on Social Security Income. Reuven always grew a garden and supplemented his meager food budget with things he could grow. Farmers locally, like Eddie Tanner from Deep Seeded Farm and others helped Reuven as well. He loved Kathy Mullen’s Kneeland Glen Farmstand and many, many others in the local community were generous with him.

Reuven’s own generosity was immense and, even with his very limited resources, he would help anyone, in whatever ways he could. For most of his life he was tremendously physically fit and able. Most folks remember him at a yoga class, dancing on the plaza during farmer’s market or at a local music event, hiking in the redwoods, biking to Trinidad and generally being an example of physical fitness. Mike Reinman and his family were his longtime friends, Osher Zelig Galambos, also a dear companion, and so many others gave Reuven bicycles, food, shoes, clothing, vacations and companionship. Although Reuven was surrounded by folks who loved him, he still felt very alone much of the time.

He was deeply held and loved by two Jewish communities here; the more Orthodox Jewish Community Chabad of Humboldt County and my congregation Temple Beth El. He was also involved in B’Nai Ha Aretz out of Southern Humboldt. Over twenty years ago, I remember driving with him to services in Garberville when I first started wanting to observe where Naomi Steinberg would be offering services. Reuven and I loved the singing, chanting and meditating that was happening there. When Rabbi Naomi became the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Reuven would come with me to services there. He would help me lead services when I was officiating as a Lay Leader. When Chabad came to Humboldt, he began to split his Jewish time between the two communities.

Originally from Flint, Michigan, he grew up poor and battered with his sister Deborah, and brothers Daniel and Joseph. At the age of thirteen he was rescued from this painful home situation when he was offered a full scholarship at a religious boarding school in New York, run by the Chabad community. Reuven felt that being here in Humboldt county, surrounded by nature was part of his healing and integral to his well-being. He loved the fellowship of Chabad that he found here as it linked him to his childhood, the parts that had good memories for him. Reuven was not a traditional guy, he swung across the spectrum in many ways. He loved being able to worship and dance with all people of all sizes, colors, persuasions or religions.

Young Reuven
Reuven as a young man, in the wilderness and full of love for the earth. I found this picture of Reuven when I was looking on his FB page, and I just loved it.  Photo by Allan Love

You can hear his unique perspective on life and understand some of who he was by listening to this interview of him done by The Humboldt Lighthouse.

As a volunteer member of Temple Beth El’s Hevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) Reuven helped me prepare many Jewish men for traditional burial according to Jewish law. This is not something easily done. It requires tremendous presence, kindness and dedication. He would always say when we were done: “Next time for a Simcha.” A Simcha is a joyful event. When I was leading services at Temple Beth El, he would help me set the tables and make our space beautiful to honor the Sabbath. Creating sacred space with room for laughter and song came easily to him. He was on hand to help build my Sukkah/outdoor sacred structure for the holiday of Sukkoth. He was always there for whatever was needed by me or anyone and it gave him joy to offer.

The table set at Temple Beth El by Reuven for Shabbat Services in July of 2019, our last Simcha together. The prayer book on the tables says Ivdu et Ha-Shem b’Simcha/Serve the Holy One with Joy! This was Reuven’s motto for life. Prayer book is by Rabbi David Zaslow.

Losing his physical presence is still something with which I have not come to terms. I keep thinking I see him walking down the road or on his bike. I keep thinking I’ll run into him. But, he’s left our shore for the greater Shore of Heaven, probably late on Saturday afternoon, August 3rd. He was last seen dancing and enjoying himself at the Saturday Farmer’s market in the morning. Someone overheard him say he was planning to go for a walk/swim at College Cove, one of his favorite Humboldt spots. He must have lost his footing while walking, either going down some embankment for a private swim, or just too close to some edge. We will never know where or why he fell, but fall he did and that fall was fatal. He was alone and for many of us, this is the most painful part and certainly everyone’s worst nightmare.

Despite having fallen to his death, along a part of our coastline where folks are not found due to the rocks and tides, Reuven was found. It’s a miracle his body was recovered and how that all unfolded is just one of many miracles surrounding his end of time on this earth. As a Jewish person, miracles are common occurrences. Judaism is full of stories about our teachers, prophets, simple folks and even animals who embody or cross over between this world and the next to bring us closer to Olam Ha Bah/ The World to Come.

One of many Sukkahs that Reuven helped me build.

Sukkot, a fall Harvest Festival, is a taste of the world to come. There is no door making it  open to all who want entry. It is a place of peace and sharing of stories and food and joy.

So, back to the wet story of Reuven’s miraculous water rescuers. There is a local group of kayakers called the Sunday Services group. They ocean kayak on Sunday mornings as their religious service. By chance on Sunday, August 4th, 2019 they headed north towards College Cove. They could have gone a different direction that morning, but they didn’t. They spotted his body in the ocean amidst some rocks in a very hard to get to place. They radioed the Coast Guard and the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff asked if they could retrieve the body. These are trained kayakers and they carry ropes and other things for towing someone in the water in case one of them gets injured, or in this situation to rescue a body.

I was crying so much when I heard this story for the first time that some of the details may not be 100 percent spot on. But basically, the kayakers were asked if they could tow Reuven to College Cove beach where a group of search and rescue team folks could meet them. No one knew who the man in the water was at this point. The kayakers were asked to keep him in the water until the team of rescuers could meet them on the beach. This ended up taking two hours. So, the ten kayakers formed a circle around Reuven and guarded/held his body in the ocean waves for two hours, forming a Holy circle of Shomrim (those who guard the body of the dead). This is extraordinary on so many levels. They knew nothing of Reuven’s religion or about Jewish practices, nevertheless he was given the most sacred circle of Holy attendants. They were his first guardians and they performed this kindness among the crashing waves of the ocean at risk to themselves and in a truly magnificent way. Who gets this kind of escort to the other side? Reuven, that’s who!

Due to the diligence of several of Reuven’s friends, who sought these kayakers out, to try and understand what happened to Reuven, we were able to learn of this rescue. This has been important as members of our community have tried to piece together as much of the details as we could to navigate our pain around his ending.  Some email excerpts from the kayakers help illustrate how truly incredible finding and retrieving his body so quickly was.

“This morning we did paddle north for the first time since Reuven’s death.  We slipped along the shore line where we had delivered Reuven’s body to the Sheriff.  At this moment I was struck by the beauty and peacefulness of this place.  This for me was significant as from this place he could continue his journey to be reunited with his community.
We then went on to the place we had discovered his body.  You should know that this is an area that we are not able to paddle in and explore very often.  It can be quite dangerous because of the reefs and the ocean conditions here.   How fortunate that we had a calm day for discovering Reuven.” ~ Mike 8/26/19
“I showed Noah the spot where I first noticed something unusual in color, investigated further, and found his friend. Described the orientation  of the body and pulling it away from the reef with my paddle. Then how I yelled for Larry and your immediate call to the coastguard and the method of us towing him to college cove. Then we took  Noah to college cove and showed him where and how long we waited with the body. Noah is very comfortable in the water and can now take others to the spot. He also can take people to right above the spot on a trail he claims he, Reuven, and others frequented. This area has a good view of the spot without getting close to the cliff edge. Also, when we arrived at Reuven’s location I placed flowers (from Noah) on the water per his wishes. Everything went well and I feel Reuven’s community can now take over…”  ~Bruce 8/26/19
Here’s a link to a  video by Eddie Arni of the area referenced above.

The local news was full of the story about this unknown man being found. It took the Jewish community a few days to put the pieces together. One of Reuven’s longtime friends, who had been very concerned about his whereabouts, called the police and made a missing person’s report. Then we were told that the body found in the water was Reuven. The local Chabad rabbi Eliyahu Cowen and some of his community went to the coroner’s office to confirm his identity. Another heroic set of events then ensued.

In the Jewish tradition we do many extremely time sensitive practices around death. We do not leave our dead alone from the time of death until the time of burial. We sit shomer. The word shomer means guard. So, we guard the person with our presence. We recite psalms and make sure nothing untoward happens. Then we ritually wash, purify and clothe the person in a shroud and wrap them in a sheet like a cocoon and place them in a plain pine box, or in Israel, just in the ground without the casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women. When we are washing, we always protect the dignity of the person and cover their genitals and breasts. We recite words from the Torah, specifically the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs, exalting each part of the body. Here are some excerpts that we say.

“….Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
leaping down the slopes of Gilead.

Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in rows of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,

His legs are alabaster columns,
set on bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
16 His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend…”

And, so in this way, the final body experience a person has is this loving honoring of their body. The quotes above are just a few examples. The whole process takes anywhere from two to four hours and requires three or four people. Because Reuven was found and retrieved by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s department, he was at the Coroner’s  in Eureka. In order to sit Shiva we had to arrange with them to have folks in their front entrance be able to sit and recite psalms. The local Sheriff and Coroner and all of their staffs were amazingly kind and accommodating. Search and Rescue folks who are usually volunteers also deserve praise for their service.

When the Coroner’s office was closed we set up chairs outside the building. This huge feat was accomplished via Facebook and word of mouth and the organization of this was done by a local doctor from the Chabad community. Rabbi Eli also helped the coroner find Reuven’s next of kin, because Reuven had been part of the Chabad community and they have connections everywhere, so rabbis were called in Flint Michigan to get the phone numbers for Reuven’s sister Deborah who lives in NY. The coroner could not release Reuven’s body to us until permission was granted by his family. It took hours to figure this out and we were all in shock and mourning at the same time. Once Rabbi Eli had spoken with Deborah, a new set of tasks was set in place which had to do with getting a burial plot for Reuven that was kosher by Orthodox Jewish standards.

As a Jewish Renewal and Reform Jewish woman, this is not a requirement of mine nor of my community, but it was for the Chabad community. Since they also loved and claimed Reuven and had the resources to purchase a plot quickly, they started that process. At first we thought we’d have to send Reuven to the Bay Area, but this didn’t really sit well with all of us who knew and loved him. This was his home, his beloved home. He was not a city guy, he was a country man, a wild earth loving man. So, Rabbi Eli and his community set up a fund and raised enough money to buy ten plots at the Trinidad Cemetery. These plots then had to be roped off and consecrated as Jewish land according to very specific rules. All of this took place in the course of two days, which would take most folks weeks to get done.

Jewish tradition mandates burial within 24 hours of death, which we could not do, because of laws around bodies found not in the care of a doctor when they died. The need for all the local agencies to complete their investigations so Reuven’s body could get taken to a mortuary where we could prepare him for burial was just one part of this process. Then, without ever having done so before, Rabbi Eli and two other men from the Orthodox Jewish Community lovingly prepared Reuven’s body for burial. Temple Beth El provided the casket and shroud for Reuven, who had no money or family to pay for the cost of his burial and funeral needs. Chabad created a fund to cover costs as well and between our two communities coming together in his honor and memory, he was lovingly and traditionally cared for. The same woman who had arranged around the clock sitting shomer while Reuven was at the Coroner’s office coordinated it for us at the Ayres Family mortuary where we prepared Reuven for his final physical journey.

He was found Sunday morning August 4th. He was identified positively on Tuesday by our community. He was released by the coroner on Wednesday late afternoon. He was prepared for burial on Thursday and his burial was in Trinidad on Friday August 8th at 3 p.m. We cannot and do not deal with death on the Sabbath. So, getting him buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, August 9th was critical.

There were over 150 folks at his burial service led by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen. It felt right to put Reuven to rest in the sun at the top of the Trinidad Cemetery. We then could begin to grieve and mourn, having dealt with the very intense details around his dying and getting him laid to rest. Rabbi Eli talked about how we were “tucking him into the earth he loved.” He gave a beautiful eulogy.

Dear friends of Reuven’s, Amanda Devons and Jerrylyn Rubin, were traveling in Israel when they learned of his death and saw my post on Facebook alerting folks about where and when events were happening. Amanda volunteered to write the obituary that ran in the Mad River Union. She did this from Israel, where she felt so bereft over his death, and wanted to honor him from afar. Folks from Israel, New York, Europe and all over the world have mourned his death and all have had stories about how he improved, helped or informed their lives and made their time on this earth more joyful. He was probably a Lamed Vavnik: “The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים, “hidden righteous ones”) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל”ו צַדִיקִים,x”36 righteous ones”), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks),[a] refers to 36 righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism.” ~Wikipedia

What’s critical here is that the Holy One hides these folks, even from themselves.  It is thought that it is only because of these 36 humans that the world continues to spin. If we are kind to them, things improve on planet earth. If we are cruel to them or harm them, this is not good for us or the planet. 

Because Reuven’s burial happened right before Shabbat those of us who are observant all had to rush home to make Shabbat. See my blog post: Shabbat Structre, Simply Divine Spiritual Technology) for more of an understanding of how the Sabbath is observed. Before leaving the cemetery, we let folks know that a memorial would be held on the following Tuesday at the Arcata Vet’s Hall and that all were welcome. Again, this was organized quickly by the Chabad community and enabled folks from all over, who loved Reuven and were not Jewish necessarily, to come and pay homage to him.

Our Rabbi Naomi Steinberg also organized a series of memorial events for the Sheloshim (30 days) from death observations. We traditionally sit shiva which means we mourn for seven days from the time of burial in the home of the mourners. Since Reuven’s next of kin were very far away, different members of the community hosted dinners or times during the first seven days and the Tuesday memorial was one of those. It was at this event that so many disparate groups of folks came together to honor his life and memory. This is where the kayakers were told to come to learn about the man they’d rescued. It’s also where I heard their story for the first time. Their truly spectacular kindness and efforts on behalf of an unknown body floating among the rocks and waves of Humboldt County is a testament to their goodness and the miracles surrounding Reuven.

It’s taken me three months to write this piece and to navigate my tremendous grief. I’m still sad every day. At the Sheloshim observances we did a joint Chabad and Temple Beth El clean-up/pick-up trash in Sequoia park as a way of honoring Reuven’s memory. Being outdoors and doing good were ways to not only remember Reuven but make our sadness for his loss into something positive for the earth. This is also a traditional Jewish practice around death, to donate your time or money to a cause that would have been supported by the deceased. We also had a final coming together back at Temple Beth El where folks could share again, or for the first time, their memories of Reuven. And this was followed by a potluck meal, which Reuven would have thoroughly enjoyed.

Photo of Reuven by Blessing Mae

As I sat in services for Yom Kippur and we read the names of all our beloveds who have died during the Yiskor/Memorial service. I cried again for the loss of this man from my life and the lives of all our communities and from his siblings’ lives. I still feel his presence and continue to beseech him to act on our behalf and help us take better care of each other and this earth in danger. If anyone can make miracles happen from across the bridge between this world and the next one, it is my dear beloved brother Reuven. In his absence, we all of us who love him, or who are moved by this story, must commit anew to being kinder to each other and more flexible with one another’s differences and finally to skip and cavort and laugh and honor and protect the earth, and all her creatures, as if she was our most beloved dance partner. As Reuven would insist,

“Next time for a Simcha!”

May you be comforted among all those who mourn and let us say Amen.

Reuven 2
Reuven pointing the way to a Simcha: Photo by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen 

This article was originally published over two weeks in the Mad River Union.

Part One on November 3, 20019: https://madriverunion.com/rounding-and-reeling-for-reuven/

Part Two on November 9, 2019: https://madriverunion.com/rounding-and-reeling-for-reuven-part-2/


Jubilee Part Five: Encountering Death Consciously

Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993
Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993

When it is my time, the Holy One will take me. I’d like the folks left behind here to know that I am not gone when that happens. In my tradition there is a teaching that the only thing you can take with you to the other side are your mitzvot. I use the translation of this word here as deeds of loving kindness or rightness. So, if my deeds of goodness follow me and come with me, I should do a lot of them! It’s not a reason to engage with mitzvot, but rather a consequence of living my life as if I was already in Heaven, a place where kindness and beauty reign. There is plenty of Hell here on this planet. I have never been afraid of going to such a realm, I just want the suffering on this planet to be done. So, I orient towards Heaven on earth, bringing beauty, goodness, love, warmth, comfort and delight into this time and place. My need to walk this particular path is coded in my core. I feel pulled and guided by that force constantly.

Taking a retreat from engagement with the folks I love and who I just know and encounter on a daily basis is a radical step. I am interested in a specific kind of departure from the norm. I want to explore leaving this world consciously. If I dip into the absence/death-well, while I am still living, I get to practice to navigate territory that is very uncomfortable for all of us. This choice, on my part, about why I need to do this is so complex. I am not talking about taking my life. I have never felt inclined to do so and I doubt I ever will. Looking at death in depth and consciously, is different from venerating it or reaching towards it.

If I were Hindu, I would just say I was going to spend some time with the Goddess Kali and that would make sense to folks who were steeped in that tradition. Buddhist practitioners engage in years of contemplation and “practice” around death. There are complex meditations that involve envisioning your death, the death of those you love and death in general. In the modern secular world, we have a fascination with vampires, zombies and ghosts. But engaging with those ideas as entertainment or story-line is very different than looking at the reality of death head on.

I’ve been looking at it literally with my head on (using my mind and body to be present around death) all of my life. Over fifteen years ago, when a dear friend became ill with cancer, her final wish was that our community endeavor to bury her according to Jewish tradition. This meant engaging in study around traditional Jewish practices and creating a Hevra Kadisha locally. Hevra Kadisha translates literally as Sacred or Holy Community/Society, most folks think of it as the Jewish Burial Society.

The service of a Hevra Kadisha is done anonymously and involves preparing a person for burial according to ancient beautiful Jewish practices from Torah. In my 49 years on this planet I’ve gone from fishing for gravestones in a stream (see Jubilee Part Four) to gently preparing those who have died to enter the earth.

We enter a river of blessings in this process as well as doing the heavy lifting, purifying and cleaning. I do this work with four or five other people mostly in silence with only specific prayers recited as we engage in the various tasks. We bathe and cleanse and lovingly robe folks in simple linen garments modeled along the lines of the High Priest from the Torah. We wrap them tight in a shroud, like a cocoon and place them in plain wooden boxes. We place broken shards of pottery over their eyes and mouth to signify that their soul has broken free of its physical vessel. We lovingly praise and honor their physical bodies as the homes of their souls and we ask forgiveness if anything we do while preparing them wasn’t done properly. This service is considered a mitzvah/commandment/obligation that is of the highest order. In my community, we do this for free. In all Jewish communities, if you do this work, you are actually doing it for the person who has died, and they cannot thank you or pay you, which is why it is considered to be a very special mitzvah.

My service with the Hevra Kadisha has brought me in contact with death in real time and with real humans whose bodies I have engaged with. I have also had the privilege of being present with folks as they were dying and on their journey across the “River Jordan.”

The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994
The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994

Intrinsic to my need to go on retreat is a concept called L’Shem Shamayim: for the sake/name of Heaven. Underneath my desire for stillness is a strong and always flowing current of connection with the Divine. I need to see what it is that the next phase of my life is supposed to be oriented around and towards. I need to find out what I can do for or in the name of L’Shem Shamayim and for the world to come/Olam Ha-Ba. This idea of a world to come can be interpreted to mean tomorrow or the world we create, not just the world on the other side of life, but that is also part of its meaning. So, taking time away to explore through prayer, through meditation, through engagement with solitude and nature and through active study are all ways for me to connect to Olam Ha-Ba.

In this world, which we call, Olam Ha-Zeh, I am also taking time away to get still and see what unfolds in a place that is less stimulating and full of others and their needs. I am often seen as the “spiritual” one in my family, in a group or gathering. I do not like this, when it separates me from others and makes me seem or look different. While I am happy to be seen as a woman engaged with Torah, with Holiness, I do not want to be the placeholder for Holiness in other peoples’ lives. I want everyone to engage and have relationship with what is Kadosh/Sacred/Holy to them.

I also don’t want connection to a spiritual reality to be seen as something that can only be done in a big way. Folks who are quieter or less obvious and vocal are just as capable of connection with the Divine as I am. There is no singular or right way to connect or be engaged with spiritual practice. Although there are tried and true and well-researched and practiced spiritual technologies and teachers that can improve our ability to connect and experience Holiness or Deep Mystery.

“The root k-d-sh occurs nineteen times in Parashat BeHukotai, the last reading from the book of Leviticus, in which there are altogether 152 occurrences of this root. The Torah nowhere defines the concept of kedushah, what we might call in English “holiness” or “sanctity.” Nevertheless, the use of this root has developed extensively, so that today we speak of making kiddush on the wine, or of reciting the kaddish and the kedushah in the synagogue service, or of marrying a woman through kiddushin (the ring ceremony), and we behave as if we understand the concept of being kadosh (holy) which is present in each of these actions. We tend to forget that holy is a divine (transcendental) concept, and therefore, like the concept of G-d, is above human comprehension.”-Dov Landau

As a Jewish woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a grandmother, as a friend, and as a daughter, taking a year off from my family and friends is a very intense thing to do. It will be a death of sorts. This is time of absence and death-like being away from those I love is a risk I am willing and need to take. I do so knowing that while it will be hard for those who love me and who I love, it can also be a blessing and an opportunity. Getting up close to and intimate with absence and death or separation is a very hard thing for most of us to do. Taking this path consciously, for me, and hopefully for those who will miss me, is a way to flow into and explore THE RIVER of space and time, beyond our physical bodies and all their coverings and ways and means. I’m looking intently towards and across that mysterious “River Jordon.” I have no desire to cross over yet—but I am very curious about the territory.

to be continued…..

~byline from the original piece published in the Mad River Union on August 13, 2014:

Nicole peeks across and around all kinds of corners, rivers and edges wherever she abides and she endeavors to speak of this as she walks along the way. Sometimes, she can be found in her home in Bayside, but you are just as likely to encounter her swimming at Big Lagoon or meandering along the aisles of your local health-food store.

Life and Death Matters

Life and Death Matters

by Amanda Devons & Nicole Barchilon Frank

 And the days of Israel drew near to die, and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: If now I have found favor in thy eyes, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal with me kindly and truly; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)

The eleventh century commentator Rashi said about this passage: “The kindness which is shown to those who are dead is a true kindness (literally, a kindness of truth) for then one does not look forward to the payment of recompense.”

In 1999, around three years ago, in Eureka the Humboldt Hevra Kadisha was formed. Chevra or Hevra Kadisha means “Sacred Society.” It is more commonly translated as “Jewish Burial Society.” For more than 2000 years, as Jewish communities formed throughout the world, a Hevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be organized in order to attend to the preparation and burial of the deceased in accordance with Jewish law. Our Humboldt Hevra Kadisha, meets regularly to discuss the work we’ve been doing, learn more about ritual, tradition, and practices, and to find out what needs we have. At our last meeting, we had in attendance both men and women. This was very gratifying because the ritual of tahara is done by men for males and by women for females.

Some of us discussed our feelings about our recent experiences doing tahara. Although it was agreed upon that this is not an easy task, physically or mentally, members of our group said it was one of the deepest spiritually meaningful things we had participated in. Responses from our group have been very positive. People feel they have “been transported to other realms,” “gone to the gates of death and found life,” “received extraordinary spiritual strength” “departed from the mundane and touched the holy!” The work deepens our understanding of life and makes us better able to truly live our lives.

It is difficult to find time in our busy lives to stop and do this work. Often, we have to be available in the middle of the afternoon. Returning to work feels very bizarre! We have also found that having some quiet meditative time together as a group before we begin is very important. Traditionally, men and women do mikva (ritual immersion in living waters), before re-entering their daily lives. Even if we can’t do everything the best way, we all know we are striving to be of service to the person who has passed away. The deceased is referred to as the met (for a man) or meta (for a woman) and by their name (Hebrew name when possible).

Some Terms and Definitions:

Shemira–watching over the body. The body is normally covered with a sheet or blanket upon death. We sit Shemira until the met has tahara and is laid to rest in a closed casket. We also sit shemira with their casket until the person is buried. This practice of maintaining a vigil so that the deceased’s body is never left alone is designed to comfort the neshama (soul) before it ascends to heaven. Selected Tehillim (psalms) are read aloud in either English or Hebrew.

Tahara—the preparation of a deceased’s body involving washing and dressing, by someone of the same gender, accompanied by prayers seeking forgiveness from the deceased and asking for eternal peace. After washing the met is dressed in a shroud of simple pure white linen or cotton, and then wrapped in a sheet called a sovev for burial.

Gemilut Hasadim—support services for the mourner and his or her family. This includes making funeral arrangements, holding a graveside service, and bringing the necessary siddurim to read prayers and shovels to cover the simple wood coffin with earth. Other services include bringing food to the house of mourning, finding a minyan (group of ten Jewish folks) to say Kaddish, and attend to the mourner who is sitting shiva. This is not the traditional purview of the Hevra Kadisha, but due to the small size of our community, we often find ourselves doing this task as well.

Chesed shel emes—the ultimate good deed, since those who perform the deed can never be repaid for their kindness. The members of the Hevra Kadisha are often called upon to serve with little or no notice, since they must spring into action promptly upon death.

Some ways you can get involved:

Even though a person may not have been active Jewishly in their life, they or their families might desire a Jewish burial. If you know anyone not affiliated, and feel comfortable discussing the matter, let them know about the beautiful practices of our tradition. Perhaps you can show them this article.

We need 100% white or off-white cotton or linen material for burial and or sheets to wrap the met in. If you have any white all-cotton sheets, please contact Nicole to donate. (We don’t actually need folks all over the internet to send us sheets!)

Because our services are often needed with very little notice, extra volunteers to help with any part of the process are very welcome, especially the Gemilut Hasadim. We have had great help from many of you.

Our Hevra Kadisha has a form that we are currently working on improving. This form looks at wishes concerning burial, funeral services, internment, memorials, etc. It is very important, within our tradition, to think about end–of–life issues. They often arrive suddenly, as we have painfully been learning of late. Communicating our wishes prior to emergencies makes everything easier for those we love and who love us. Start thinking now about what you want for yourself and those you love. We will be sending you a form to help with this process in the coming year.

~ From the Temple Beth El, Eureka California Newsletter