Jewish Journal

Webinar on Taharah Leadership

by Susan Esther Barnes

February 20, 2013 | 7:00 am

Tachrichim (Jewish burial garments) come in a box like this.

This week I, along with about 70 other people, participated in a webinar about taharah leadership given by Kavod v’Nichum. Taharah is the act of ritually washing and preparing a dead body for burial, and Kavod v’Nichum is an organization that, according to its website, “encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevra Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities.”

The webinar was hosted by David Zinner, the Executive Director of the organization, and the material was presented by the president of its Board, Dr. Michael Slater, and his wife, Dr. Shoshana Waskow.

The presenters did a couple of things which helped the webinar to be successfully interactive. First, they emailed a list of questions to the participants before the webinar, and incorporated some of the responses into the presentation. Second, they asked participants to use chat to communicate questions and responses to the presenter’s questions, and then they incorporated that material into the webinar as well.

One of the things that struck me about taharah leadership as it was presented is that a lot of the keys to success in leading taharah are the same as leadership in anything else. Things like respect, trust, a knowledge of the tasks at hand, and good communication skills are important components in any successful team.

In addition, as is true in many team settings, it’s the result that counts, so it isn’t always necessary to sweat the details. There is a set procedure that each taharah team follows, but since it’s mostly minhag (custom) and not halacha (law), there’s no reason to freak out if something is done out of order or a little differently than normal. As long as the prayers are said, the 24 quarts of water are poured, and respect is shown to the dead person, it’s all good.

However, some things make taharah leadership different than leading other teams. First, taharah teams are, usually, comprised of volunteers. Unlike a company in which one person is always “the boss” and the others are always the workers, in a taharah team, leadership can move from one person to another from one taharah to the next, or even during any particular taharah. As a leader, it’s always best to be respectful and polite, but with any volunteer group, it’s helpful to remember that nobody has to be there. If they aren’t treated well, they don’t have to come back to do it again.

Second, and not to be overlooked, is the emotional nature of the act of performing taharah. Some are more emotionally difficult than others. If the person is, God forbid, a child, for instance, that can be hard on the group. If you aren’t told the name of the dead person before you arrive, it could turn out you knew them, which could be difficult. Or they could remind you of yourself or someone else you love. Not to mention the fact that seeing a person who has died can be a sad experience, in any case.

The webinar reminded me that, as a result of the emotional nature of the work, a taharah team leader may need to be more sensitive to the moods and emotions of others than an average leader. In addition, a taharah team leader may need, more than other leaders, to make space for team members to express and process their emotions.

Overall, I felt the webinar was very well done, and I’m looking forward to participating in more of them in the future.


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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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