The Loving Determination of the Los Angeles Jewish Burial Society
by Aharon Loschak – chabad.org
When the coronavirus pandemic spiked in California last month, it brought unprecedented numbers of the deceased to local mortuaries. Yet despite a staffing shortage—also due to the pandemic—the members of the local Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) have been doing everything in their power before and since the surge in fatalities to ensure a proper and timely Jewish burial for everyone who needs one.
Bruce Bloom, a native of the Los Angeles area, has been preparing the deceased for burial for more than 40 years. He explained how his workforce has dramatically shrunk this past year, with many of the usual staff and volunteers either unable to help due to age or vulnerability or too afraid to risk becoming infected. “While our staff is usually about 20 people, we’re down to about seven. But still, we’re doing what it takes, and thank G‑d, wherever a taharah (purification) has been requested, we’ve been able to provide one,” he said.
For the Jewish community, there are many unique challenges that come up when tending to a body during a pandemic, especially the taharah procedure, which comprises cleansing, ritually washing and dressing the deceased’s body. Those who perform this act of kindness recite special prayers during the procedure, beseeching G‑d to lift the soul into Heaven.
Understandably, this process presents complications during a highly contagious pandemic. Standing so close to a deceased body involves significant risk, and the procedure must be performed with extreme care.
Despite the risks, every day Bloom’s staff travels from one end of the vast Los Angeles metropolitan area to the other to perform their sacred duties. As Bloom spoke to Chabad.org while driving from one taharah to another that was more than an hour’s drive away, he talked of the efforts he and his crew have expended over the course of this long pandemic.
“There are a number of Jewish mortuaries in the area, as well as non-Jewish funeral homes that take in Jewish bodies and offer burial services. Throughout the pandemic, and particularly more recently during the spike, many of them did not offer taharah services, going so far as to not allow it to be done on their premises,” he explained.
Working with mortuary officials, the Chevra Kadisha will do whatever it takes, says Bloom. If that means bringing the body to another mortuary that does allow the taharah, that’s what they’ll do.
‘We’re Doing What It Takes’
With some cemeteries backed up, receiving 50 to 60 bodies a day, another challenge is the funeral and burial. “Usually, the family and friends gather in the chapel for a service prior to the burial, but for a long time now, this has been discontinued here in California,” said Rabbi Yanky Raichik, who heads the local Chevra Kadisha chapter for the Chabad community in Los Angeles. “Everything is now done at the actual gravesite, oftentimes with a very limited number of people.”
Another challenge that frequently arises is transportation to distant final resting places. “Most airlines won’t allow a covid body on their planes, and we have to work very hard to ensure a body gets to its final destination should the need arise,” said Raichik.
Affording the deceased proper honor is what drives these hard-working people—noble souls who expose themselves to risk every day at a job that hardly anyone knows about, added Raichik.
“One of the men who did taharahs was a pediatrician who I really loved, such a wonderful person,” said Bloom. “Though he himself was gravely ill, that didn’t stop him from continuing performing his taharah duties. Sadly, in October of 2019, he succumbed to his illness.”
“I spoke at his funeral,” continued Bloom. “I said: ‘Many people talk about how they want Moshiach now. For me, I’m ready to proceed straight to the resurrection of the dead. I’m ready to greet all those people we buried as they make their way back into this world.’ ”