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 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

Tu BiShvat

By: David Levy, sales exerted from a post written for Jewschool.

When Tu BiShvat falls on Shabbat, phthisiatrician as it does this year, diagnosis I love the chance to build a Shabbat menu around fruit. Back in 5763 (aka 2003), when I was in my first year as a full-time Jewish educator, Tu BiShvat also fell on Shabbat. The shul where I worked had a very successful monthly community Shabbat dinner event. I asked if I could take the lead for the month when the dinner would coincide with the so-called birthday of the trees.

I was met with some skepticism. “Our congregation loves the dinners as they are. We don’t want any programming,” I was told. “Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m talking about menu and decorations. You won’t even know that you’re taking part in a Tu BiShvat seder.”

Kids' PlacematHaving made the bold claim, and not entirely sure how I was going to back it up, I got to work with my partner-in-crime, Robin Kahn, then the synagogue’s family educator. We bought up every mylar tree that iParty had for sale. We made up vertical seder plates with four levels, representing the four Kabbalistic spheres the seder traditionally mentions. One set of plates was filled with the expected fruits (the top level being left empty, natch). The other filled with dips like hummus and olive tapenade, because we’re classy like that — and because it gave us a second set of surfaces on the table to which we could affix labels. A third set of four bottles of soda or juice (representing the color spectrum from red to white) gave us our third canvas. The labels we places on each level, each bottle presented all the information of the seder in small, non-threatening and non-invasive chunks. (And lest you think I forgot about the שבעת המנים, the seven types of grains and fruit grown in Israel linked to the holiday, we had crackers made of barely & wheat to complement the rest of the fruits & dips on the seder plates.)

Our crowning achievement was the placemats we created. They were double-sided, with one side aimed at kids featuring a word search, a Cosmo-style “What Kind of Tree Are You?” quiz, and more. The adult side included a timeline detailing the evolution of the holiday from the time of the Second Temple though today, some text about the mitzvah of baal tashchit (the commandment not to destroy), and the words to the song השקדיה פורחת. No one had to look at the placemats if they weren’t interested, but to load the deck in our favor, we set the table with transparent plates and cutlery.

The dinner was a success, both from a culinary standpoint and an educational/programmatic one. Placemat for Grown-UpsToday I printed out a new set of those placemats to use this Shabbat. It’s weird to look back at something from so early in my career — I admit to going through and changing the way I spelled the name of the holiday (thanks, BZ!) (although now I noticed I missed a spot). But I’m still proud of the work Robin and I did. And today it serves as a reminder to me that Jewish education can touch even those most resistant to it if we approach it with a little creativity and a lot of office supplies.

If you’d like to use my placemats at your Tu BiShvat table this year, feel free! here’s the adult version and here’s the one for kids.

David Levy was an Everett Fellow at the 2009 Summer Institute.

January 28, 2010   No Comments

English Kaddish

By: Richard Heiberger

This kaddish was written in memory of Mary Morris Heiberger (1946-2003). The translation is in contemporary English, information pills and can be recited in synchrony with the Aramaic – the vernacular at the time kaddish was written. The translation maintains the same cadence, assonance, and meaning as the original.

Magnified and sanctified
is the name of Yah
in the world by will created.
May Yah’s governance govern
in your lifetime, and in your days,
and in the life of the Family Israel,
speedily, and in a time come near.
And we say:

We praise the Name of Yah, unceasing,
Eternally turning to eternity.

May it be blessed, and it be acclaimed,
and it be gloried, and it be adorned, and it be hailed,
and it be adored, and it be raised, and it be praised
—the name, the Holy Name, Blessèd Be—
far beyond any
blessings and hymns,
praises and solace
uttered in this world.
And we say:

May there be abundant peace from Heaven,
and life upon us and on all Israel.
And we say:

May the Maker of peace above
continue to make peace
upon us and on all Israel
and on the world wherein we dwell.
And we say:

Richard Heiberger has attended the NHC Summer Institute since 1992 and was Treasurer and member of the NHC Board from 2001-2006.

January 27, 2010   No Comments

How To Plan an Engaging and Effective Text Study Shiur

By Marisa Harford

As a member of several independent Jewish communities, health care
as well as a learner and teacher at the NHC Summer Institutes, herbal
I have had the opportunity to attend many excellent text study classes — and some that could have benefited from better planning. For some of us, ed
Jewish text study is fascinating and exciting, a core way we connect to our traditions and to our communities, while for others, text study can be intimidating or off-putting. In this article, I explain the planning process I use in the hopes that it will be helpful to other facilitators in creating engaging and effective classes.

Of course, planning is only half of the battle — skilled facilitation is another aspect of creating a successful shiur (study) — but in my experience, planning is the most often neglected area.

The content of this article is not based on any one educational theorist but rather on the many influences I have absorbed in my 10 years as an educator in both the public schools and informally in the Jewish community. I make no claims to originality, but am not recapitulating any one particular methodology. The steps outlined below assume that you are entering into the process with an audience and topic already in mind.

  1. Consider your desired outcome(s) first. Some common purposes of a text study session in a havurah or independent Jewish community might be to help participants:
    • Attain knowledge of a particular subject
    • Engage in a debate and grapple with various voices on a controversial issue
    • Decide how they feel personally about an issue/ help them understand the relevance of that issue to themselves
    • Develop their text study skills
    • Form community through studying together
    • Energize them around a cause, e.g. for social justice
  2. Clarity about your goals will help you design a learning experience that will feel purposeful and fit you community’s needs. Keep your desired outcome(s) in mind while you are planning so they can shape the choices you make along the way.

  3. Consider your audience and the constraints within which you are working. To the extent that you know the following, it is important to keep these aspects in mind:
    • Number of participants
    • Participant age range
    • Participant comfort/ experience level with text study or texts in Hebrew/Aramaic
    • Are the participants a homogeneous or heterogeneous group? Will you need to provide multiple versions of the source sheet or discussion questions at different levels?
    • Time allotted
    • Space provided and physical amenities: For example, do the chairs and tables move easily so that you can arrange them for chevruta (partner) study and then turn them to face each other for a whole-group discussion? Is there a whiteboard for writing up notes or a projector for multimedia presentations?
    • Shabbat- and holiday-appropriate activities: Depending on your community, some or all participants may not be comfortable with certain activities on Shabbat and holidays, so make sure to take that into account.
  4. Create a set of key questions. What sparked your interest in the topic? What are the big ideas and main controversies or possible points of interpretation and/or disagreement? Narrow down these big ideas to 1-4 juicy, meaningful key questions. A key question should not be answerable in a simple, factual statement; rather, it should prompt discussion and debate. Do not be afraid to narrow down the number of questions. For a one-hour class, one truly meaningful key question can do the trick.
  5. Cull your sources. Because this is Jewish text study, you presumably have many, many sources you can choose from that are relevant to your topic – Tanach (Bible), Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), midrashim, responsa, philosophical works, contemporary commentators, non-Jewish sources, etc. Cast a wide net when doing your initial research, but then when you have established the purpose and key questions for your class, spend time selecting a much smaller number of texts that specifically fit your purpose and key questions and will be accessible to your participants. Consider the order in which the texts will be presented. Especially if you have a thesis that you want to communicate to the participants, think about their encounters with a series of texts as steps along a journey towards the destination of your big idea. How will these particular texts you’ve selected, presented in a specific order, guide the participants through the ideas you want them to explore?
  6. Decide on an entry point activity for your participants to help them relate to the topic before diving in. Some ways of establishing an entry point are:
    • Giving participants a small snippet of text (a powerful quotation, film clip, poem, etc.) that relates to your topic and asking them to share their quick initial reactions
    • Asking participants to give a quick response to one of your key questions as a “whip around” (every participant gives a 1 sentence answer to the question or prompt; can be done in small groups or partners)
    • Eliciting participants’ questions about the topic (“what do you want to learn about____?”) OR eliciting participants’ prior knowledge about the topic (“what do you already know about_____?”)
    • Asking participants to introduce themselves and say why they were interested in the topic (can be done in small groups or with a partner if the group is larger than 8-10)
    • Giving participants time to free write, draw, or talk with a partner for 3-5 minutes in response to one of your key questions
  7. Consider learning methods and write your “lesson plan.” Decide how you will facilitate the participants’ learning and chart out the order of those activities and how much time is allotted for each. Try to limit any lecturing or Q-and-A with the facilitator to 15 minutes; even adults fall asleep after that much time. Don’t forget to provide time for transitions between different activities. Here is a sampling of types of activities that can be part of a text study class, from perhaps the most common to less-common (but very effective) strategies:
    • Chevruta study — make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Small group study or discussion — again, make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Independent reading of a text (with a focus question) and then sharing out responses with the whole group
    • Whole group discussion
    • Journaling or free writing
    • Structured debate with different participants assigned to argue for different sides
    • A “jigsaw” – Divide into several groups, each of which is assigned a different text or a different key question to explore together. Then, form new groups so that one person from each old group is in each new group, and the group members share what their round 1 group discussed with the new group members.
    • “Silent discussion” – put the text(s) up on the wall/on tables on big sheets of paper. Participants write comments on the paper next to the texts, or annotate the texts, and then other participants can comment on those ideas, creating a written dialogue.
    • Using art (drawing, etc.) to express individual interpretations of a text
    • Bibliodrama / creating skits to express an interpretation of a text or dramatize a debate
    • Problem-based learning: Give the participants a real-world problem that can be solved/ explored with knowledge or ideas from the texts you provide
    • A game or “quiz”
  8. Reflect on your plan. Are the texts and learning activities consistent with your overall purposes and your audience? Will the participants leave with a clear sense of what they learned? Will it work within the allotted time? Will the participants be actively engaged the whole time?
  9. After you teach, gather feedback from participants about the session to help you improve for next time.

Marisa Harford attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2003, and co-chaired in 2009. She is on the NHC Board of Directors.

January 4, 2010   No Comments

What Page Are We On?

By: Benjamin Maron

Many of our communities start off meeting in a living room or other non-synagogue space. While this provides a level of intimacy and comfort for community members, patient it also often means that we are scrambling for resources. A common phenomenon is the “BYOS” (bring your own siddur (prayer book)) service, price where participants are encouraged to show up for services with their own prayerbooks, sildenafil and havurah or minyan organizers who have extras bring those too.

The resulting hodgepodge selection of siddurim (prayer books) means that people will participate in services with a familiar siddur, but this can provide some unwanted confusion in calling out pages. “We’ll start with Yedid Nefesh on page… uh….” One solution is to make a grid for siddurim (prayer books), listing prayers or other liturgical markers down one side, the various siddurim across the top, and filling in all of the page numbers in the grid. It can be a lot of work to compile these. Luckily, much of the work has already been done for you.

For Friday night services, Kol Zimrah has prepared this grid [doc] showing ten different siddurim.

For Saturday morning services, Minyan Tikvah and Segulah have similar grids to hand out. You can find the former here [xls] and the latter here [xls].

Tremont Street Shul has their grids for both Friday nights and Saturday mornings on their website.

Feel free to use these as examples for your own minyan or havurah. You can add any additional siddurim to them, or remove any that are not used in your community.

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 28, 2009   No Comments

Leadership Roles: Religious and Spiritual Authority

By: Benjamin Maron

When starting a new havurah or minyan, salve or getting involved in Havurah Judaism for the first time, link many of us are asked by our peers – both synagogue members and unaffiliated Jews alike – how these communities can function without a professional leader, usually a rabbi, in charge.

There are several ways to explain this model, the most common being that with enough knowledge, resources, and support, any of us can lead a community in prayer, any of us can offer a thought-provoking d’var Torah (word of Torah) or text study, any of us can contribute to life-cycle events. In a paper [PDF] presented to a conference of rabbis, Mitch Chefitz framed the history of rabbis’ roles in Jewish communities as learners and teachers of the tradition through study of Talmud and later the Shulchan Aruch, the rise of mysticism, the broadening of religious authority, and the transition of communities led largely by rabbis to other forms of leadership. The paper also addresses the significant changes in religious and spiritual authority from changes such as the proliferation of siddurim (prayer books), the formations of “communities that are sustained by niggunim [songs without words],” JDate, and “Jewish leaders … being tacitly ordained from below rather than from above.” How does this apply to us in the Havurah world? What can we learn about how our members are resources for community leadership? What is, and what should be, our model of religious and spiritual authority? Where might we need leadership, knowledge, or resources not available within our communities, and where might we find people or information to guide us?

Read the paper “Religious and Spiritual Authority in the New Jewish Paradigm” [PDF] in full… and feel free to share thoughts, and any answers to the concluding questions, in the comments.

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 28, 2009   1 Comment

Havurah Guide

By: Benjamin Maron

Using the Havurah of South Florida as a model, store Mitch Chefitz published the Havurah Guide [PDF] in 1990. Twenty years later, the contents are still useful for those looking to start a havurah or minyan or wanting to find suggestions for improving an existing minyan or havurah.

The Havurah Guide provides a comprehensive introduction. Many topics are covered, from how a havurah or miyan could be run to guidelines for fostering a Jewish fellowship; from the role of text study and how to nurture learning to which holidays and life-cycle events can be observed; from how to incorporate social action to other resources for further programming.

While this is a case study of a specific havurah, we can all learn from each other’s communities across the country (and around the world). If you use part of this Havurah Guide, please let us know in the comments. If your havurah or minyan has practices that would complement this resource, please share them!

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 28, 2009   7 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   No Comments