'We ask forgiveness from the dead': Why Jewish volunteers are washing bodies in a pandemic

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

David Kushner demonstrates how he would wash the deceased if he were performing a tahara at a mikveh at the Levine Funeral Home in Trevose, Pennsylvania, on Friday, May 22, 2020. - JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — It used to be that David Kushner would receive a call to report to one of the area’s Jewish funeral homes once every few weeks. In the pandemic, his phone has buzzed every single day, sometimes more than once.

Then, Kushner, 40, must rally the other members of the Chevra Kadisha B’nei Moshe. This all-volunteer group, which is not affiliated with any one synagogue or denomination, is the largest of the handful of chevra kadishas, or burial societies, that operate in the region. Driven by faith and reverence for tradition, its members gather to carry out the ritual cleaning and dressing of bodies before burial. For devout Jews (or even lapsed ones), these are their final respects.

This work has always been emotionally taxing. Now, it poses a degree of physical danger.

Kushner and the other men suit up in full-body hazmat suits, from face shields, goggles, and masks, down to disposable booties. Working in groups of four, they have condensed the ceremony, normally about an hour, into a brisk 30 minutes, or 15 minutes if the deceased is COVID-19-positive. That includes reciting prayers, rinsing the deceased with fresh water, dressing him in a clean linen shroud, and placing him into a wooden casket atop earth from Israel. (Female chevra kadisha members attend to the bodies of women.)

“During the pandemic, a lot of families weren’t able to sit with their loved ones in the hospital to say goodbye,” said Kushner, who has performed the ritual cleaning, known as tahara, on hundreds of strangers, and many of his own friends and loved ones, including, last November, his father-in-law. “To know that their final physical moments in this world were done … the same way that was done to their parents and their grandparents for generations, going back thousands of years, is really a rock-solid source of comfort.”

Yet, whether to continue this work during the pandemic has been a source of debate and disagreement. Chevra Kadisha B’nei Moshe consulted rabbis, epidemiologists, and infectious-disease specialists before forging ahead. They asked members older than 60 to step back, reducing their rolls from about 50 volunteers to a core group of 15.

Another local group, the Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha, decided to suspend operations.

“We love the ritual, because it really honors the person who died,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and a founder of that group. But they could not see a way to continue without violating social-distancing guidelines.

“There is no Jewish ritual that is so important that one should do it if it could possibly kill you,” she said.

Patricia Quigley, a funeral director at West Laurel Hill Cemetery and a member of the Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha, said it’s just one of many mourning rituals that have been disrupted there, from the Jewish tradition of graveside services, in which families help shovel soil into a grave, to the Sikh funerals that bring large crowds into the crematorium.

Although the group’s work is on hold for now, Quigley does her best to carry out the tahara alone when it’s desired: humming the melody of the prayers where her Hebrew fails her, dressing the body in a linen shroud, placing the soil.

Another Jewish funeral home, Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, has allowed the chevra kadishas to return only within the last month. Carl Goldstein said he was concerned about the safety of his staff, already overwhelmed by more than twice as many funerals as in a normal spring.

Now, they’ve adapted: Sending those who die of COVID-19 to Goldsteins’ Broad Street location, while aiming to keep the Southampton chapel coronavirus-free. The chevra kadisha is permitted to go only to Southampton and only in the evening, after most staff have left for the day.

For those who are COVID-19-positive, Goldstein gently tells the family a tahara can’t be done.

“They get very upset,” he said.

In those cases, a part-time employee who’s also a chevra kadisha member has performed an “abbreviated” tahara, chanting prayers while placing the folded shroud and prayer shawl and soil atop the sealed, double body bag.

That’s Avi Barr, 70, a retired schoolteacher who first volunteered for the job 34 years ago, and presses on, though his wife and his son worry he’s putting himself in danger.

“Once I did it for a young kid. He was 15 years old. He got killed in a car accident. That really hits you hard. But it’s the respect, it’s the final respect I can give somebody.”

Though taharas are offered to Jewish people of all denominations, they have declined in popularity, said Brian Levine, of Levine’s Funeral Home in Trevose. Fewer than half of funerals there include a tahara. Some people dislike the ritual, or want to be buried in a suit and tie instead of a linen shroud, he said.

For others, it’s a sacred tradition.

Some chevra kadisha members come from a long line of practitioners, going back generations. Kushner, whose day job is government liaison for a nonprofit, said he became a last responder for the same reason he volunteers as a first responder, an EMT and a police chaplain. “I just can’t say no.”

From death until burial, the Jewish faith holds that the soul hovers close to the body, in a state of limbo. Kushner has a sense of that presence as he performs the tahara. After it’s complete, he said, “we ask forgiveness from the deceased.” It’s tradition, to apologize for any error or inadvertent disrespect.

During the pandemic, that work has been intense, the apologies frequent.

One day in April he was called to a chapel in New York where there were 30 taharas in a single day. Lately, those numbers have been declining, to Kushner’s relief.

To Levine, it’s a point of pride that they were able to keep the tradition alive through the pandemic.

“It’s considered a great honor and a mitzvah. It’s a good deed that cannot be repaid.”

———

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

David Kushner demonstrates how the platform that would hold the deceased moves on a hydraulic track at a mikveh at the Levine Funeral Home in Trevose, Pennsylvania, on Friday, May 22, 2020. - JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS