It may not be the most popular committee at the synagogue, but rabbis say volunteering for a chevra kadisha is one of the most important and selfless things one can do.
A chevra kadisha is a group of people who perform the ritual blessing and cleansing of a body before a Jewish funeral. Typically composed of three to five volunteers, there are two chevra kadisha groups at each synagogue because they are separated by gender. Men tend to men, while women tend to women.
Literally translated, “Chevra means this collegial group. Kadisha means this holy collegial group – those two words are Aramaic, actually – a collegial group of holiness,” said Rabbi Hayyim Kassorly of Congregation Or Ve Shalom in Brookhaven.
To be part of a chevra kadisha, one must have a flexible schedule that can defer to death. When volunteers are called, they have to be ready to show up within 24 hours to prepare a body for burial.
“I have a lot of respect for the people who take this on. It’s not always an easy job and one where there’s not a lot of glory or recognition. But it’s a very meaningful act of service,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.
According to Jewish tradition, a body must be buried as quickly as possible after death. The chevra kadisha performs a ritual cleansing and blessing of the body before dressing the deceased in the simple, white shrouds that Jews are traditionally buried in.
“They have a great responsibility because they are literally preparing us for life after life,” Kassorly said.
Rabbis say Judaism holds chevra kadishas in high regard.
“It’s the ultimate kindness because it’s a kindness that person can never repay,” Heller said. “I know they are never going to return the favor to me, so it’s doing a kindness for the sake of doing a kindness.”
Rabbis and volunteers emphasize that there is a great sense of respect and dignity that goes into the burial preparations. And the people who volunteer for chevra kadisha say they take comfort knowing they can help the dead find peace.
Annette Easton leads the women’s chevra kadisha at Shearith Israel in Morningside, a position she has held for 40 years. “There was no organized chevra kadisha, and I didn’t want to do it at first,” Easton recalled. “But then the rabbi reminded me that there were no women to help my mother when she died. That empowered me to do it.”
Easton said working with the chevra kadisha “grounds you and makes you realize what the world is about.”
“It makes me happy that I can help somebody,” she said. “It’s an honor to be the last person who takes care of a person in death. It’s made my life richer.”
Easton said in 1973 there were only two or three women involved, but now the women’s chevra kadisha group numbers almost 20. She also praised Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care in Chamblee for improving conditions and modernizing the chevra kadisha for the deceased and those in the group.
Steve Schaikewitz, who volunteers for the chevra kadisha at Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody, said he likes feeling connected to tradition. “As a Jew, you know this is the way it’s been done for thousands of years,” Schaikewitz said. “You’re part of a tradition. You’re one of a long line.”
And he hopes that when his own death comes, there will be people who will volunteer their time for him.
“I would like for someone to treat my body this way, with kindness and with respect. So I’m going to do it for others along the way,” Schaikewitz said.
Once a year, volunteers from Atlanta-area chevra kadishas are honored for their service at a citywide dinner. Fred Glusman, the chaplain at The Carlton Assisted Living and Memory Care in Sandy Springs, said he organized the first chevra kadisha dinner in 1983.
Glusman said it is common in many Jewish communities to have an annual dinner to thank chevra kadisha volunteers; but he said Atlanta is the only city he knows of that brings together volunteers from all the synagogues in the area.
“Too many times when we are divided in certain areas of worship, this is one area where everybody is on same wavelength,” Glusman said. “I think it’s important for reform, orthodox, and conservative (Jews) to meet each other and see that everybody is doing this same act of kindness.”