Renewal synagogue in Berkeley embraces life-affirming burial ritual

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Elizheva Hurvich’s first taharah — the Jewish ritual of washing, dressing and praying over the dead — was a powerful experience.

Even though the dearly departed happened to be a mannequin.

Practicing on a dummy was necessary as Hurvich and other like-minded members of the Berkeley Renewal synagogue Chochmat HaLev expand their chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society.

“All of us are riveted and fascinated and a little scared,” Hurvich said. “Here we are facing our own mortality. Even though it was a doll, it was standing in for a real body. There are people that went before us, and one day I’m going to be on that table.”

Elizheva Hurvich

Hurvich is part of the synagogue’s bereavement team, which helps mourners through shiva (the seven days following burial) by providing meals, comfort and companionship.

Offering taharah and shmira (reciting psalms around the clock in the presence of the body) seemed like the next logical step. Unfortunately, Hurvich and her colleagues had no experience with the ritual.

“Because a lot of Chochmat HaLev [members] are relatively young, we don’t have an established chevra kadisha, and those stepping up have not been trained,” Hurvich added.

Enter Nicky Silver, an Oakland chiropractor with years of taharah experience, with the chevra kadisha at Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue and back in her native Massachusetts.

She attended the first meeting of the Chochmat HaLev chevra kadisha nearly two years ago and has served on the steering committee ever since. Silver says those first meetings were about getting participants comfortable with the subject of death.

It took a while.

“The three things guaranteed are we are born, we live and we die,” Silver said, “but we ignore the last. We don’t have conversations about it. It’s just a part of this culture that we make things pretty. We don’t like pain; we think of death as bad.”

She asked members about their experiences with death, telling them that to work with the dead, “you’d better have some of your own stuff looked at. [Taharah] is a pretty easy ritual, but it’s challenging for most people who haven’t been in the presence of a dead body. It takes a willingness to share your own vulnerability.”

In 2009, Linda Griff (left) and Amy Buccola demonstrate a taharah on Libby Bottero during a national chevra kadisha conference held at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. photo/michael fox

Eventually the time came for the chevra kadisha members to take a field trip to a funeral home.

The volunteers witnessed firsthand what it takes: the kosher 2-by-4 beams (for turning the body), the stainless-steel table, the buckets, gloves, aprons, towels and nail-polish remover. And, of course, a close encounter with the dead.

Aliza Shapiro is a member of Chochmat HaLev’s chevra kadisha, as well as two others in the East Bay. She has taken part in three taharahs, usually done in teams of three or four (men working on men; women on women).

The ritual requires kavod ha’met (respect for the body), which generally means working in silence, except for the recitation of prayers and brief instructions during the washing of the body.

Rather than flinch at the idea, Shapiro relishes the prospect of doing the one mitzvah for which there is no possible thanks.

“To me [taharah] is almost a group-movement practice among nonprofessional dancers, one of which is dead,” she said. “It’s a lot like meditation, where you’re in a different sense of time. It’s precise, slow and focused.”

Because Hurvich hasn’t done a taharah yet, she says she needs more preparation. That’s one reason she enrolled in the Gamliel Institute, an online course in the Jewish traditions surrounding death and dying.

The 12-week course covers everything from safety procedures when working with bodies to appropriate liturgy to taharah. Rabbi Stuart Kelman, the emeritus rabbi at Congregation Netivot Shalom, co-founded Gamliel and serves as dean.

Hurvich wants to study the tradition so she and her colleagues can begin traditions of their own. “How can we do it our own way if we don’t know the way?” she asked.

She says the Chochmat HaLev chevra kadisha will learn tradition but very likely change it, as well. In addition to standard liturgy, the committee may include Renewal songs and chants, and perhaps a Marge Piercy poem or two.

Liturgy is not the only concern. Silver says death was a simple matter back in the shtetl. The chevra kadisha knew just what to do every time. Today’s world is complicated.

“Now there are many alternative ways of being Jewish,” Silver said. “The three big ones are cremation, non-Jewish spouses and transgender. People who want to do a transgender taharah will need extra training.”

Serving on a chevra kadisha is “really transformational,” according to Kelman.

“Once you’ve taken part in this mitzvah, you can no longer treat somebody alive the way you did before,” he said. “When you touch and have been in the presence of a dead person, there is such an appreciation of living and of life.”

Silver believes whoever worked out the Jewish way in death and mourning had a keen understanding of the human psyche.

“It’s supposed to hurt,” she said of death. “That dirt [hitting the casket] is supposed to sound terrible. Having the shirt ripped hurts. Jews are not wishy-washy. It’s profound to know we’re supposed to hurt.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.