Speaking well of (those who bury) the dead

Few would consider Jewish death rituals a natural conversation starter. But it was Topic A at a recent banquet in San Francisco to honor Sinai Memorial Chapel’s chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society.

The Talmud says that Zayin Adar, the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar, was the day Moses was born and died. It’s also when a chevra kadisha feasts and reflects on the sober and holy work it does, in symbolic emulation of God, who, according to tradition, performed the same task for Moses.

That’s why I made my way over to the Jewish Community High School on March 1 for Sinai’s annual Zayin Adar luncheon.

During the year, the 15 members of this burial society usually gather in silence, men with men and women with women, to guard a Jewish body from the time of death through the ritual cleansing (taharah), wrapping in a shroud, and final lowering into the grave. But on Zayin Adar, they greet each other with smiles and laughter, share news of the past 12 months and renew their commitment to each other and the Jewish community they serve.

“None of us could do this alone,” said Sam Salkin, president of Sinai Memorial Chapel, as he greeted the chevra kadisha and their friends and family. “You do this work day in and day out, and most people in the community will never know who you are.”

Traditionally, the names of those serving in a chevra kadisha are not publicized, to preserve the dignity of the deceased. The “holiday” of Zayin Adar is also not publicized, and few know about it.

“To say that this day is relatively obscure in the Jewish community is an understatement,” Sam told the crowd.

A chevra kadisha is something we don’t think about until we need it. And then, we need it very much. But most of the time, we simply assume it will be there, doing its sacred work to make sure that bodies get properly buried, that families are comforted, that Jewish ritual and the law of the land are followed.

When Jews live in smaller, close-knit communities, the bereaved can turn to neighbors for solace and practical guidance. But in the Bay Area, particularly for the secular or unaffiliated, a loved one’s death can throw the entire family into chaos. Whom do you call? What needs to be done?

Sinai Memorial Chapel, founded as a chevra kadisha in 1902, has operated as a nonprofit from the onset and is still Northern California’s only Jewish funeral home. It is, Sam says, unique in the country, one of just two nonprofit Jewish funeral homes not affiliated with a synagogue or particular Jewish stream (the other one, in New York, is very new and, he tells me, is not used by the Orthodox).

Whereas members of Jewish burial societies traditionally are volunteers, Sinai pays salaries, to ensure services are always available. In addition to helping clients with funeral arrangements, Sinai makes its facilities available to synagogues that have their own chevra kadisha and need a place to do the work.

From the beginning, Sinai has done more than bury the dead. It has also served an educational function, offering guidance through all aspects of a Jewish funeral. And last month it took a huge step forward, launching a comprehensive new website (www.sinaichapel.org) that provides answers to just about any question you could think of, from advance planning to how to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. The website provides, for the first time, “a directory of every single site where Jews are buried,” Sam says, as well as a list of mourners’ minyans that is updated regularly. There’s no other website like it in the country; putting it together was a two-year act of love.

In addition to everything else it does, Sinai provides comfort to mourners, a warm Jewish hand to hold when they just feel like crying. Last week, J. received a letter from a local woman who had returned from her mother’s funeral in Delaware and lost her black “mourner’s button.” She called Sinai Memorial and, she said, “a lovely woman” told her to come over. At the chapel, “a very nice man” gave her a replacement button as well as a seven-day memorial candle — for free.

This woman had nothing but praise for Sinai Memorial Chapel, which “so warmly opened their gates during a difficult time.”

I don’t know who the very nice man was, but I suspect it was Sam.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].