Green Burial – Hevra Kaddisha

By: Linda H. Feinberg

At a meeting of Jewish artists recently, mind I was asked whether we had a hevra kaddisha (holy burial society) in New Hampshire. I mentioned that there were several. The questioner wanted to know why this wasn’t announced somewhere. I hesitated to answer, diagnosis because it’s a touchy subject and those of us who are involved are not really supposed to discuss it.

Meanwhile, help
I have noticed newspaper articles about “green burials” and also about Muslim burial rites clashing with Connecticut laws. It would seem that the Muslim rites are very similar to the Jewish rites – burial within 24 hours, washing the body, wrapping it in a special cloth. Since the state of Connecticut won’t allow burial without a casket or vault (burial liner) if the cemetery resides within 350 feet of homes, Muslims are being flexible and respecting the laws of the land. They also put some soil in the coffin or vault so that the body is in touch with the earth in accordance with Islamic law. Jews who are not being buried in Israel frequently have dirt from Israel placed in the coffin as well.

Green burials seem to be catching on as people become concerned about the environment and the costs associated with the average traditional funeral ($6,500 according to the National Funeral Directors Association) plus the cemetery costs. Cremations are also increasing.

As Jews we have choices in our state. We can have a funeral director guide us, or we can use our own traditions for guidance. Our traditions are already “green” – no chemical preservatives, no metal casket – and are less harmful to the environment. The hevra kaddisha is divided into two groups, one for preparation of women, one for preparation of men. We are very respectful of the deceased at all times, saying prayers (both in Hebrew and English), washing, shrouding, and placing the body in a wood coffin (interestingly enough the Hebrew word “aron” is used both for the coffin and for the “aron kodesh” – the holy ark which holds the Torah).

Another group is asked to provide a shomer (watcher, guard) at all times until the coffin is buried. We usually take one- to two-hour shifts. It is traditional to read Psalms while you are sitting with the coffin. It is not necessary for any of the people involved to actually know the deceased.

For more information, contact your local rabbi or ask questions in the comments below. Also, on the web, good materials can be found at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org and other sites. Just do a search for “hevra kaddisha” or “green burial” or “Muslim burial rites” – I’m sure you’ll find something interesting.

Gan Eden

Four or five of us meet at the funeral home
quietly reviewing the procedures,
our roles and the prayers we will say.

Silently we enter the preparation room,
gather our supplies, wash and glove our hands.
We stand respectfully around the departed
and begin the prayer, slowly and with feeling,
first in Hebrew, then in English, so all can understand.

As I say the words, my mind visualizes this woman,
beautiful and healthy again, vibrant with life,
dancing with the other souls,
free at last in the Garden of Eden.

Linda H. Feinberg has been attending NHC events for a few years and is on the finance committee. She is a business owner (Z-Best Bookkeeping), poet, and artist who resides in Manchester, NH. She has a blog with poetry and art and can be reached by email.

February 9, 2010   2 Comments

Siddurs, and Benchers, and Downloads, oh my!

By: Benjamin Maron

A collection of resources for helping you and your community further supplement and explore prayers and Torah, physician plan services, misbirth and more:

  • Gather The People is a downloadable resources for preparing divrei Torah (words of Torah) and more.
  • Mechon Mamre lets you print sections from the Torah side-by-side in Hebrew and English, medical and in several other formats.
  • ScrollScraper lets you print a tikkun page (page for preparing to chant/learn Torah) for your Torah Reading.
  • Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael, by the Progressive Chavurah/Siddur Committee, is a Friday night and Festival Evening siddur. It features transliteration, traditional text, gender neutral translations, and a multiplicity of voices in the commentary.
  • Siddur Eit Ratzon, by Joe Rosenstein, follows the same format as Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael and has many kavvanot and meditations, as well as guideposts for learning and experiencing Jewish prayer services.
  • L’chu N’ran’nah is an egalitarian bencher used at the weddings and in the homes of many NHC members.
  • Az Yashir Moshe is a printable bencher in PDF format.
  • Green & Just Celebrations is a booklet published by Jews United for Justice, containing specific suggestions for how families can make purchasing choices for weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc., in ways that are mindful of workers’ rights and environmental impact.
  • HebCal is a perpetual Hebrew calendar that can be localized to your ZIP code.
  • Shabbat People, is a web application for signing up participants for services.

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 26, 2009   2 Comments

Taking on Social Justice

By: Abby Bellows
This article was inspired by a workshop Abby offered at the 2009 NHC Summer Institute.

Many of our communities value tikkun olam (repairing the world), syphilis either reflected in actions taken by the community as a whole or in the professional and volunteer choices made by individual members.

Are there reasons to take on social justice work as a whole community?

Yes! There is a need for communities like ours (mainly of highly educated, purchase white voters) to be vocal in fighting poverty and other social dilemmas; we can experience a sense of fulfilment from helping and working alongside others; it can build relationships and unity within our own community; and some of us are excited to engage in something other than our jobs. Social justice is part of our Jewish tradition and it’s a great way to foster a positive image of Jews in our cities and counties, medicine where many of the oppressive landlords, employers, and officials happen to be Jews.

So what is social justice work?

It addresses the root causes of issues faced by “us” and “them,” developing relationships and leadership in the process.

What are the challenges of doing social justice work with your minyan or havurah and how do we deal with them?

  1. Some people don’t feel that they have relevant skills, or are intimidated by the scale of the problems. This evokes Ruth Messinger’s quote, “We cannot retreat into the convenience of being overwhelmed.” We can always start somewhere.
  2. There are diverse political perspectives within some communities. So when bankers and social workers can come together on good davening (praying), why cause rifts by divisive conversation? One response to this is to find and talk about the points we can all agree on (public education perhaps, or responses to homelessness).
  3. Some communities engage a lot of people who do this kind of work by day and aren’t looking to do more on the weekends and at night. They want their prayer community to be just that. This can be handled by identifying other people in the community who might be interested or who could engage through different modes than they do by day.

However another response to these challenges involves a paradigm shift. Instead of “doing” social justice, how can we integrate it into everything our community does?

An old model for thinking about social justice might have looked like this:

  1. a few people “do” social justice;
  2. they plan an event to “do” social justice (such as a food drive at Yom Kippur);
  3. they fulfil their obligation to “do” social justice;
  4. they have helped “others”.

Instead, a model for social justice could look like this:

  1. everyone is involved (those who set the dues structure use a sliding scale proportional to people’s incomes; those who organize the Kiddush (light meal after prayers) use re-usable dishes; divrei Torah (words of Torah) often connect to socially relevant issues, etc.;
  2. social justice is all of the time;
  3. social justice is continual;
  4. we are helping ourselves as well as helping others (this could look like working on issues that concern our lives – such as affordable rent, student loans, and healthcare – and also impact on our broader community). Motivate people through their personal narratives. Ask your havurah or minyan community what they struggle with and are excited about improving in our lives.

Some examples of social justice in minyans or havurahs:

  • Fabrangen (in Washington, DC) has short term events, builds longitudinal relationships, goes to protests, and has a sliding scale for membership dues.
  • Tikkun Leil Shabbat (in Washington DC) is an outgrowth of Jews United for Justice, and came with a stronger mission for combining social justice and Jewish prayer space. Every time they meet, they have a speaker from a local non-profit give the d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue), which includes information about the organization and direct ways to take action. In addition, they focus on their environmental footprint by washing dishes instead of using disposables.
  • Kol Zimrah (in New York City) is working on greening their community by using reusable dishes and asking members to “BYOdishes”. They are considering giving a portion of their fundraising money to tzedakah (charity). But they also recognize that for most members, this is primarily a davening community, and members go elsewhere for social justice.
  • Hadar (in New York City) has anxiety about higher rents in shomer Shabbos (keeping the commandments of Shabbat, including being able to walk to davening) neighborhoods. They have channeled their anxiety into working on housing issues, through direct service (volunteering in a homeless shelter and building with Habitat for Humanity) as well as through advocating for legislation that will regulate rent.

Abby Bellows has attended numerous NHC Summer Institutes, and was co-chair in 2008.

December 26, 2009   2 Comments