by Menachem Posner – chabad.org
A central organ of Jewish communal life is the chevra kadisha, the “sacred society” that performs the final rites for the Jewish deceased. In larger communities, the chevra kadisha may contain dozens of volunteers or paid staff. In smaller communities, however, it is usually a small, dedicated group of unsung heroes who prepare the departed for a Jewish burial.
In this conversation, Rabbi Rafi Andrusier, 32, who co-directs Chabad of East County in San Diego with his wife, Chaya, discusses the ins and outs of serving as men’s coordinator for the city’s chevra kadisha.
Q: First, some technical details. How is the chevra kadisha organized, and who are your key partners?
A: There are two separate teams, one male and one female, so that each deceased person is treated with the dignity and modesty we would have accorded them during their lifetime.
We work closely with a local Jewish mortuary. When a family requests a traditional burial, we are called, and I coordinate with a fellow member of the men’s chevra kadisha to perform thetaharah, the washing and dressing of the body. The women generally go with a team of three because they find it more difficult to maneuver the deceased.
We occasionally get calls to perform the taharah in other funeral homes, but it is much more difficult because typically they do not have all the items we use—white shrouds, washing cups, soil from Israel to place in the hands, buckets and earthenware shards to cover the eyes—and don’t understand our needs.
Q: How did you get involved in the chevra kadisha?
A: My wife and I founded our Chabad House in 2012. I was originally recruited by Rabbi Aharon Shapiro, who lives in San Diego and travels all over the world as amashgiach (“kosher supervisor”). Since he is often on the road, he gradually shifted the responsibility to me. Both I and the person who most often joins me for taharahs live not far from the mortuary, which is in the older Jewish area of San Diego, so it works well for us.
Q: What’s it like to work with the departed?
A: It can be especially emotional when it’s someone you know. The rabbi of the Conservative congregation in my area passed away suddenly, and I was called in to do the taharah. We had a warm relationship and his death was hard for me, but I did it nonetheless.
At some point, I realized that as difficult as it is for us to care for someone we knew, that actually gives comfort to the family. People will often tell us that they are glad that we were able to care for their loved one and give them the taharah. They find it significant, and I am glad to be there for them in this way.
Q: Can you describe the experience and how you go about your duties?
A: It’s awesome, in the literal sense of the word, like Yom Kippur. Knowing that you are preparing someone to meet G‑d gives you a sense of reverence.
Before we begin and again when we finish, we verbally ask the deceased to forgive us for any indignity we may inadvertently cause them. We begin by removing bandages, cleaning the nails and generally removing whatever extras we can without causing bleeding. Even before we do the taharah, we wash and dry the body thoroughly, so it is clean.
Throughout the entire time, the face and private areas are covered, except for when we are working on them.
In a more established facility, the taharah is done by immersing the body in a mikvah. Since we do not have a mikvah here, we accomplish this by pouring nine kav, approximately 3 gallons, of water continuously over the body.
While this is going on, we speak as little as possible, and certainly don’t chat or joke. We are focused entirely on the dignity of the person we are preparing.
At the end, they are dressed in simple white shrouds in accordance with tradition, holding some soil from Eretz Yisrael, which I find very powerful.
Like all aspects of Jewish life, the values that we apply to how we treat the departed are not a given. We try our hardest to always remain cognizant of the fact that we are dealing with a real human being, a fellow Jew, a person like you and me.