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Chevra Kadisha in South Florida

Project Abstract

There are only 2 Chevra Kadishas in the South Florida area which are conducted by the Orthodox Jewish Community. Many in the South Florida area did not grow up learning about tahara. Also many Jews are Jews-by-choice in the Reform movement. Tahara and CK are not taught in the Judaism 101 classes. There are many Jews who came from other communities in the world where tahara is done normally but due to geo-politics, they are not aware of the specifics of this beautiful and meaningful ritual. I interviewed a number of people in different positions in the Jewish community and people who have immigrated from South American and former Soviet Union countries. I have found a diverse community which would be served by a Progressive CK. 


Introduction

On February 12,2018, I was invited to attend a Chevra Kadisha dinner for people involved in the Chabad Chevra Kadisha. I had not done a Tahara [ritual cleansing of a decease’s body] yet. But I accepted the invitation. This dinner was to acknowledge people who volunteer their time to do tahara. It was also on the 7th of Adar in commemoration of Moshe’s Yahrzeit. The dinner was to be held on Feb. 22.

On Feb. 14th, a lone young man stormed the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida  with a semi-automatic gun. He murdered 17 people. Among the 17 where 3 Jews. The CK performed tahara on those people. On the day of the dinner, the people in the CK were saddened by the events of the 14th. They were also saddened that the day before on the 21st, a 10 year old boy in the Chabad community committed suicide. What struck me was the kindness and sensitivity of each person there. The rosh of the CK had worked with a local organization of volunteers and Jewish Community Services [social service agency] to help the family through police questioning, cleaning the scene of the suicide and working with the boy’s school to inform and counsel the boy’s schoolmates on this tragic situation.  

Also I was told that the CK consisted of mostly South Americans. I learned that tahara was a usual occurrence for Jews in South American countries. 

On February 25, I was asked to perform my first tahara. When I arrived I was met by a Latin Woman, Miriam. She had everything organized. The three buckets of water were already drawn, pots were in the buckets for pouring water and ready for use. The tacharim were laid out. The earth, vinegar and shards of pottery were already set out. Three other ladies performed the tahara with me. We suited up in our protective gear. A face covering was placed on the deceased. Another woman took on the role of rosha.The Meita  was an elderly woman who died of natural causes. We began by asking for forgiveness of the deceased in whatever language we were comfortable with. The rosha explained the process as we conducted the tahara. I thought I would observe but I was given the task of pouring water as the other person washed the body. Everything was straightforward with no complications. The deceased’s body was washed and then the table was attached to a mortuary lift ( a mechanical device). Her body was gently placed in the mikvah. We each said “Tahara hee” three times. She was removed and placed on the stretcher where we dried her and then clothed her in the tacharim[burial shrouds]. We were able to place her on the sheet and put the earth, vinegar, and shards on her body. When each of us asked for forgiveness of the deceased and asked for something we wanted for ourselves, each one of us prayed for the souls and the families of Parkland. I thought that was an amazing act of chesed. She was then rolled out to be placed in her coffin.The family had asked that the woman be buried in her tallit. The women in the CK were a little uncomfortable with this idea. They put the tallit and bag with the body and not draped over her as they would have done for a man. 

There were many Kabbalistic references during the Tahara. Nothing is passed over the body because the person’s neshama is hovering over the body. Scissors and gauze were passed to the other CK person on the side. The removal of clothes [hospital gowns] were cut off the person starting with the right side or chesed side. Once the person’s washing was complete and she was dried off, the dressing in tacharim was done in a systematic manner. The ties on the shrouds were wound around each other to the Aleph- bet. The knots were configured to be a “shin” as a representation of the Divine presence.

I had posted my experience on Facebook. I then received an invitation to attend a dinner to plan a community Chevra Kadisha by the local Jewish Federation. This dinner was held at someone’s home. In attendance were the Federation chaplain, a retired doctor from Hospice, Rabbi Leibel Miller ( the rosh of the Chabad Chevra), several people who work for the chaplain (Rabbi Fred Klein), several people from the Federation Bikkur Cholim, and Rabbis from Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions and me.

We began the meeting with a text study and then talked about the need for a community CK. We discussed how we can approach area synagogues. Rabbi Miller informed us that 40% of the South Florida Jewish population will chose cremation as opposed to burial. There are two CKs in the Miami area. One is run by Rabbi Miller and is Chabad. The other is run by Rabbi Kalman Baumann. A local yeshiva, Tora Emes, provides volunteers for tahara. 

Area Jews are not very familiar with CK and tahara and they do not usually belong to the Orthodox community. I was struck that while orthodox and conservative Jewish rabbis were commenting, the Reform movement was being left out of the conversation. I offered to be a liaison to my Reform congregation especially as I was the co- chair of the Caring Committee.We as a group will be conducting a workshop soon targeted to the community that may not be familiar with CK and Tahara. When I spoke with my reform rabbi, he said that this is an Orthodox ritual. Since then I have brought up issues related dying, death and tahara as it appears in the weekly Torah portion at a weekly Shabbat Torah study held at my synagogue. I have also tried to submit an article for the synagogue’s semi annual bulletin. The article was not published. No explanation was given as to why it was not published. There is a new Rabbi starting in July and he may be more open to these discussions.

Since the first tahara, I have been involved in two more. The second tahara was conducted by two members of the CK, me  and  two people who attended the community organizing meeting/dinner. Again the deceased was an elderly woman who died of natural causes. However the rosha had not been to this funeral home for awhile. She did not know where things where. I tried to use my previous experience to organize the tacharim. The water had not been drawn and no one knew where the earth, vinegar, and shards were. We also had difficulty finding the protective outerwear. There were some mild complications. The male shomer ,wanting to be, helpful tried to bring in the contamination container during the ritual. The deceased had glued on fingernail polish. We could not remove the polish and had to keep it on. Everything was done with gentleness and sensitivity. We were able to handle these with minimal  difficultly. The tahara continued without any other challenges. Prayers were read in both Hebrew and English.

Recently, I performed my third tahara. All of the women there were from Latin America. The tahara blessings were recited in both English and Spanish. No one read Hebrew very well. The deceased was 59 years old. She died of liver failure and was jaundiced. There were a number of port entries. I am guessing she had metastatic cancer. Rabbi Miller had performed some procedures to ready her for the tahara. These items that had blood where carefully wrapped up and would be included in the casket. She had bile coming from her mouth. When we placed the face covering over her face, the cloth would be soaked in bile. The rasha tried to pack her mouth with gauze to prevent the face covering from being soaked in bile. Each one of us was concerned about the wellbeing of the deceased and verbally comforted her soul at what we had to do for her benefit. There were still places on her body that had blood. This was cleaned and placed with the other items for burial. She was large in stature. It was difficult to move her from side to side and place her back on the stretcher for dressing. Her arm kept falling off the table. When she was ready, we had the male shomer help us place her on the stretcher in order to move her to her casket. 

Recently, I met Rabbi Klein at a social function. He has been talking to area cemeteries and funeral homes about setting up a community CK. He has received push back from these organizations because of the politics of the Rabbis. The Rabbis do not want competition from the Federation. He plans on taking a few people to the CK conference in July and then will move forward with his plans for a community CK.


Special Populations

South Florida is a diverse community due to the mild weather. The major populations in the Jewish community are from Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Holocaust survivors and the LGBTQ community. According to a 2014 study by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation 33% of Jewish Adults in South Florida are foreign born [1]

Latin America includes South American countries and Cuba. The former Soviet Union includes Russia, Moldavia and the Ukraine. Latin America has a tradition of close family ties. A deceased body would not be cared for by anyone but family members. Death is something that is considered to be a natural part of life. Many of the Jewish customs were melded in with the Sephardim and Catholic populations in these countries. In Mexico, there is the Day of the Dead. It is a day of visiting the cemetery and remembering deceased family members and ancestors. Latin America is primarily Catholic. However many Ashkenazic Jews immigrated to South America and Cuba during and after the Holocaust. I spoke with Batya who is originally from Cuba. She is 66 years old and lived in Cuba until she was 7years old. Her family had originally lived in Poland and eventually migrated to Cuba. She recalls that the first death she remembers is when her father died. Although, he died when the family had immigrated to the United States, she remembers that his body was interned in the family home until he was buried the next day. She remembers that this was not done when her mother and subsequent other family members died. By then she and her family had assimilated into the American culture. Maritza, another Cuban Jew remembers family members who were cared for by local women. The deceased would be taken to a place ,ritually cleansed and dressed before being placed into the coffin. The coffin would be sent to the family home where family would act as shomerim until the deceased family member would be buried. Sometimes a custom, by the local community that was incorporated, was to have an engraved photo of the deceased on the headstone.

CK and Tahara was similarly done in the former Soviet Union. I spoke with Peter, an 80 year old Holocaust survivor from Moldavia. He said that the deceased would be brought to the local funeral home.  Two local women would prepare the body for burial. He did not know the terms “CK or tahara”. These women would ritually cleanse the body no matter what gender. The body would be sent back to the family home. The family would sit with the body until burial, The family was responsible for all funeral expenses and arranging for the preparations, burial and shiva. If the family could not afford to bury their loved one, the community would come together and provide funds for the funeral. It was unheard of to ask the government for assistance. Neighbors would collect funds for  tzedakah. The local Rabbi would conduct the funeral and the family would sit shiva. Since the Soviet government had outlawed any expression of religious observance, the Rabbi would be contacted secretly. The family would meet in a secret room in someone’s home in order to conduct shiva and recite Kaddish. Narcis,a 45 year old Romanian immigrant explained that family would perform tahara on the meit/meita. The body would remain in the family home until burial. There is a Jewish corner in the local cemetery where Jews were buried. Flowers would be placed either in the grave or on top of the grave.

Cremation was unheard of in the  Soviet Union according to Michael, a 79 year old Holocaust survivor from the Ukraine. He confirmed much of what Peter told me. However, he said that as the west is being opened up more in the former Soviet Union, people are choosing cremation. It is a more affordable means of caring for the deceased. The newer generation does not believe they are desecrating the body as the older generation believed.


Holocaust Survivors

South Florida has a high number of Holocaust Survivors. People from New York, New Jersey, Canada etc come to South Florida because of the milder climates. Currently Jewish Community Services Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program has approximately 650 active clients. Many of them are over 80 years old. Some survivors have their end of life decisions made. Others have not done any planning. They have no clue about living wills, durable power of attorneys designated Health care surrogates, wills and pre-paid funeral arrangements. As a case manager, I do my best to educate my clients and their families about the need to make arrangements. This is typically difficult for them [its difficult for most families but more so for Holocaust survivor families] Also Bet Tzedek, a. California based legal firm, arranges with local attorneys to provide legal services which include end of life documents pro bono. [2]

According to Baycrest, a nursing home in Canada that caters to aging Holocaust survivors. “Aging is part of the natural life process, and its conclusion is death. But for many Survivors, who faced their own mortality prematurely during the Holocaust yet managed to survive, death is still considered as a personal defeat. In order to survive, they beat all the odds, and this tenacity that served them so well in their youth may complicate their aging. 

In many instances, parents couldn't teach children about death because they themselves had never learned how to handle death or how to grieve normally for their lost family members. In their experience, a death in the family was related to mass murder and multiple traumatic losses. It is often the children of Survivors who must help their parents learn to be old (and in many cases, teach them how to enjoy life.) 

At the same time, these children must face their parents' natural mortality. Compounding this anxiety is a paradoxical familiarity with the concept of death. Many Survivor children were raised in a unique environment where genocide was part of the fabric of family life. It is especially difficult for these children to deal with the "normal" realities of aging parents.”Typically, these families are very enmeshed. The very thought that their parent might die is very hard for them. They have no extended family. They died in the Holocaust. Parents are very overprotective of their children. On the other hand, many survivors did not deal with their trauma and passed it along to the next generation. Often this has alienated the children and they want nothing to do with their parent. [3]

This was brought home to me in two situations. Jean a Holocaust survivor from Poland had a living will. She had told me several years before. Her family was Orthodox. When Jean’s health deteriorated, the family went to the Rebbe and had Jean’s living will voided by the Rebbe and her family. She suffered for several months before she died. Another client in her 90s had both legs amputated because her son could not let go of his mother. This made an already dependent woman more dependent since she was bed bound. 

When one member of a couple has died, this is typically the first time they survivor will have faced a death since the Holocaust. During the Holocaust, they were never allowed to express their grief. The practical elements of death and dying were never taught to them. I remember a survivor, David, who was talked into buying an expensive casket for his wife because there was no one to tell him it was more in keeping with Jewish tradition to bury her in a pine box. Another survivor, Polina, from the Ukraine had no idea how to properly sit shiva. Those rituals were denied her growing up fleeing from the Nazis and then under the Soviet regime.


Indigent Burial

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has partnered with Jewish Community Services [nonprofit Social Service agency] to provide limited financial assistance with burial. There is a contact person, Stella. Stella has contacts within congregations, funeral homes, cemeteries and private donors. When she has a person who has not made pre-arrangements and meet the income and asset requirements, Stella will find someone to donate funds for burial. Members of the larger Miami Jewish Community can donate cemetery plots for indigent burials.

Chabad has made it known that under no circumstances would it allow a Holocaust survivor to be cremated if their wish is to be buried. They will find a way to bury the deceased.They do this by seeking private donors within the Chabad community.


LGBTQ

South Florida has a more tolerant attitude about the LGBTQ life. I suspect that Chabad CK would do a tahara on a LGBTQ person. I am not sure if they would be totally accepting of the person and who they were in life. Given my experience with the CK, I suspect they would do a tahara very reluctantly.


Jews by Choice

Many of the Jews in my progressive community have converted to Judaism. Ck and Tahara are not part of the educational classes for conversion. They need to be educated about this rituals as people who have grown up in the Reform Judaism need to as well. Tahara is obscure ritual for them. 


Interfaith

According to the Greater Miami Jewish Federation 2014 Jewish Population study, 16% of married households had one Jewish person and one non-Jewish person. They defined intermarriage as “a marriage in which one spouse currently considers himself/herself Jewish and the other spouse does not currently consider himself/herself Jewish”

According to Beth Torah website , a conservative synagogue, “In the event that a non-Jewish spouse affiliated with our congregation loses a loved one, Our Rabbis will be available for comfort and   support. Judaism offers much in the way of mourning practices.  Many Jewish traditions are universal in their ability to provide comfort at a time of loss. The Rabbis are available to discuss rituals and observances that may be helpful in a time of mourning.” [4]

According to Star of David Memorial Gardens website there is a range of gardens, “you can choose what's best for you and your family. Throughout the cemetery, there is a plethora of distinct gardens—some are dedicated to Orthodox Jews while others are for couples in interfaith marriages. Whatever your specific situation and desires, our goal is to provide a choice that properly suits your traditions.”[5]


Green Burials

There is no Florida law prohibiting burial with just a shroud. However, cemeteries may have there own rules and regulations.

Green burials have not made much of an impact in the South Florida area. According to the Green burial council website, there are only two cemeteries that are”green” They are Prairie Creek Cemetery in Gainesville, Florida and Brookeville Cemetery in Brooksville, Florida.[6]  According to Prairie Creek website “Burial at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (PCCC) is available to all people, regardless of race, creed, color, religious beliefs, national origin, gender, or political affiliation. We do burials for bodies and cremated remains. The fees associated with burial at PCCC are for the opening and closing of the grave. Prices are as follows: $2,000 for a whole body burial and $650 for burial of cremated remains. PCCC does not have any exclusive areas for any single group of people. There is however, an archway which was erected in the cemetery to facilitate some Jewish burial practices. The space around the arch serves as a non-exclusive area where many Jewish people have been or plan to be buried, and allows for non-Jewish spouses or partners to be buried in the same place.”[7]

According to the Brooksville cemetery website:”The Green Meadows a natural alternative to standard burial.  A Cemetery section devoted to the protection and preservation of our future, a final resting place that shows respect to our loved ones and the Earth. Dignity without the use of harsh chemicals or buried concrete.”[8]

The Gardens of Boca Raton would also do “green burial” in the Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade areas.

The Neptune Society offers cremation and will spread cremains in a special location just off of Key Biscayne. The cremains would become part of a coral reef. [9]

The US department of Environmental Protection would allow for the burial of a deceased in an ocean under the  Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)  According to the EPA website “The permit authorizes the disposal at sea of human remains. Cremated or non-cremated body parts are appropriately characterized as human remains provided that they originate from a single, deceased human and that the remains are not intermixed with other deceased humans or non-human remains, or body parts from living humans, or other materials, particularly medical wastes. Medical wastes that otherwise exist within the body of the deceased would not be subject to the MPRSA prohibition against the ocean dumping of medical wastes.”[10]


Conclusion

Psalm 90 sales

לִמְנ֣וֹת יָ֭מֵינוּ כֵּ֣ן הוֹדַ֑ע וְ֝נָבִ֗א לְבַ֣ב חָכְמָֽה׃

Teach us to count our days rightly,  that we may obtain a wise heart.

From Passover to Shavout, we count the Omer. Counting each day until we reach the pinnacle of redemption: the giving of the Ten Commandments. We never know when we will die. On February 14th, seventeen people went to school that day believing that at the end of the day, they would return to their families. On the evening of May 5th, Rabbi Aaron Panken the dean of the HUC-JIR (the Reform Judaism yeshiva)died suddenly in a plane crash. He was on his way to give Smicha to HUC’s graduating class of clergy. This journey into CK and tahara has been a wonderful adventure into appreciating every moment of life and to appreciate the people in my life. That has been a gift.  


Notes

[1] http://jewishmiami.org/PopulationStudy2014.pdf

[2] https://www.bettzedek.org/our-services/

[3] https://www.baycrest.org/Baycrest/Healthcare-Programs-Services/Programs/Holocaust-Resource-Program

[4] http://www.btbrc.org

[5] https://www.dignitymemorial.com/funeral-homes/north-lauderdale-fl/star-of-david-memorial-gardens-cemetery-and-funeral-chapel/7084

[6] https://greenburialcouncil.org

[7] https://www.prairiecreekconservationcemetery.org/faq-pccc

[8] http://www.ci.brooksville.fl.us/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=69&Itemid=94

[9] http://www.nmreef.com

[10] https://www.epa.gov/ocean-dumping/burial-sea#Can_states_regulate


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