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Jewish Journal

Attention Forward: We Aren’t That Radical

by Susan Esther Barnes

June 19, 2013 | 7:59 am

So-called "radicals" studying traditional taharah liturgy.

It has been said that most of us believe newspaper reporting to be generally accurate, until we read an article on a subject with which we are intimately familiar. It is then that we see the inaccuracies and distortions of a story clearly. Such was my experience with a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled, “Unlikely Radicals Take Aim at Corporate Jewish Burial Business.”

The inaccuracy begins with the title, and continues with the very first sentence, which boldly states, “The annual meeting of the Jewish death care radicals is no place for a funeral director.” The author is speaking about the 11th Annual Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference which I attended, and which is, unsurprisingly, a very appropriate and welcoming place for a funeral director.

A chevra kadisha is a group of people who use Jewish ritual, prayers and practices to watch over a dead person between death and burial; and to wash, spiritually purify, dress, and place a dead body in his or her coffin in preparation for burial. We work closely with funeral directors, mortuaries, and cemeteries. Most of us have an excellent partnership with the funeral directors with whom we work, and we have every intention of keeping it that way.

The author of this article was referring to one presentation by Rabbi Wasserman in a single workshop surrounded by a very full three-day conference covering a wide range of other issues. Michael Slater, the President of the Board of Kavod V’Nichum, which puts on the conference, tried to correct the record in the comments section of the Forward.com article, stating, “We support a vigorous debate, including the airing of positions such as Rabbi Wasserman’s. We do not advocate the wholesale dismantling of the funeral industry as organizational policy.”

Indeed, although this one short workshop presented one Rabbi’s adversarial experience with his local funeral directors, most of the conference addressed various topics which had nothing to do with radicalism or controversy, let alone our relationship with funeral directors.

For instance, there were workshops and presentations concerning topics such as a basic taharah (preparation of the body for burial) demonstration, difficult situations that may come up while doing taharah, how an autopsy or organ (and/or tissue and/or bone) donation impacts taharah, infection control, processing feelings after a taharah, taharah liturgy, how to ensure the long term financial health of cemeteries, and how to properly tie the special three-looped knots called for as part of the ritual dressing of the body.

Fortunately, if you skip the title of the article and the first several paragraphs, the author does finally transition, for a while anyway, into a more accurate description of the conference, before returning to his fixation on Rabbi Wasserman’s single presentation. So at least the article isn’t a total loss.

I guess it just goes to show that you need to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Reporters are often not experts in the subjects on which they must report, and there can be a lot of pressure on them to find any hint controversy they can to make the story appear more interesting to readers. It’s unfortunate when the result is a group of calm, caring people who donate their time and energy to do a mitzvah for which the recipient can never thank them being described as a bunch of adversarial radicals who “take aim” at the very people with whom they usually work so closely and harmoniously.

I encourage you to attend next year’s conference to see for yourself what it’s really all about.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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