Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
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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June 12, 2013 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Ok, so they’re all Jewish. But beyond that, all three spoke to a completely rapt audience on Monday at the 11th annual North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference in Philadelphia. It’s unusual, at any conference, for a speaker to completely capture the attention of the entire audience. To have three speakers do so in one day is remarkable. After this experience, I would imagine people might want to attend future such conferences just for the speakers, even if they have no interest in chevra kadisha work or Jewish cemeteries.
First, Blu Greenberg bravely told us about what it’s like to get the phone call no parent wants to get in the middle of the night: The one in which you are informed your child has just been in an accident. As if that weren’t bad enough, the accident happened in Israel, so she and her husband were unable to rush to their son’s bedside. Then the news turned worse, when their daughter informed them, “I think they’re going to ask us about organ donation.”
It’s a terrible decision to have to make under any circumstances. But she didn’t know what her son’s wishes were. And, unfortunately, the window of opportunity for organ donation is so short, she didn’t have time to investigate it. Moreover, because the death occurred in Israel on a Friday morning shortly before Yom Kippur, if he were kept on ventilation long enough for her and her husband to see him, by then his organs would no longer be viable for donation.
This story led to an enormously helpful discussion about organ donation practices, the current state of halachic rulings regarding donation, how a “do not resuscitate” order can interfere with the possibility of donation, other kinds of donations such as tissue and bone, and much more.
Next, Joy Ladin gave a talk entitled, “She Said I Know What It’s Like to be Dead,” after the Beatles song of the same name. In it, she spoke about what it’s like to be a female trapped in a male body, and how it made her feel dead and, at times, suicidal.
She described her attempt to live life as a man, and how she finally realized she could do so no longer. She teaches at Yeshiva University, and told us about some of the challenges she is facing as the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution (she earned tenure before she made her transition, making it difficult for the university to dismiss her).
Issues of gender identity and expression are important to the chevra kadisha community, because so much of what we do, including the prayers we use, the shrouds we use to dress a dead person, and the gender of people performing the taharah are all dependent on the gender of the dead person we are preparing for burial. The more we can understand about gender identities and expressions beyond the standard but inaccurate binary model, the more likely we will be prepared when this issue comes up in our own community, as it inevitably will.
Third, Leonard Fein gave a fascinating talk about the intricate interweaving of his life, that of his daughter, may her memory be a blessing, and others, in a series of vignettes which could either be taken as a series of coincidences or perhaps the workings of a higher power.
During the Q&A afterward, he was asked whether any Jewish rituals or practices had provided him with any comfort after the death of his daughter. He responded, “When a child dies, people come up to you and hug you, and they say, ‘That is the worst thing that could ever happen.’” He said he wanted to respond, sarcastically, “Oh, really?”
Then, he said, Rabbi Larry Kushner made a shiva call. He said Rabbi Kushner said “exactly what wants to be said: Tell me about your daughter.” This was an important lesson for all of us about what to say and what not to say at a shiva. Whether or not you do chaplaincy work, sooner or later this is the kind of advice you’re likely to need, because, sooner or later, we all need to make a shiva call.
As if these three speakers were not enough, they only represent a small portion of what went on at the conference. I expect I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks. This conference is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had since the one they held last year. If it’s something you’ve ever considered attending, stop thinking about it. Next year, just go.
You can learn more about Kavod V’Nichum, the organization that puts on the conference, here.
June 5, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Recently, someone who is dear to me, and who I’ve known for over 30 years, shared a photo on Facebook with text which read, “You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches and says ‘When you’re done I’m going to punish you.’ If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.”
The first thing that sprang to mind when I read this is, “No, that is not my God you are describing.” It is a common error made by atheists. When they describe the God they don’t believe in, they are describing a God I, and many other religious people, don’t believe in, either. The fact that they think we do believe in their imagined version of God shows they don’t acknowledge the diversity of religious thought.
The second thing that strikes me about this statement is the aggression used in the phrase, “a God who sends child rapists.” The point could have been made equally well without insinuating that God not only allows child rapists to exist, but has an active role in making them rape children.
One of the things I love about the person who posted this image and text on Facebook is we are able to discuss our differences of belief in a respectful manner. I think this may be possible, in part, because I neither try nor expect to convert her to become religious, and I don’t feel like she tries or expects to convert me to become non-religious. We do, however, try to see things from each other’s point of view.
I responded to the post by saying, “God gives us free will. Sometimes we do terrible things with it.” This is the crux of the matter.
The best way I’ve ever heard it stated is there are three things people want to believe when they believe in God: God is good, God is all knowing, and God is all powerful. But if all three of these things are true, then how can child rapists (and a myriad of other ills in this world) exist?
The answer is, God cannot be all three at once. In order to reconcile your belief in God with what you see in the world around you, you have to pick no more than two. I believe God is all knowing and God is good, but God is not all-powerful.
I believe God gave us free will. In order to do that, God had to limit God’s own power. God had to say, “No matter what these people do, I will not and cannot make them do anything, nor stop them from doing anything. Otherwise, I will rob them of the gift of free will.”
Tornadoes are not acts of God, they are acts of nature. Rape is not an act of God, it is an act of a human being. Why did God create a world in which tornadoes can happen, and in which some people have the desire to rape other people? I don’t know. Maybe God had a choice between creating an imperfect world or no world at all. Maybe God wanted us to be a partner in creating a better world.
I believe God gave us not only free will, but also the minds and bodies with which we can repair the world. We can build shelter from tornadoes. We can catch and punish rapists. Perhaps, some day, we can even identify what is going on in the minds of potential rapists and find a way to cure them.
The next question is, “If God isn’t all powerful, why pray to God? Can God answer your prayers if God is not all-powerful?”
My response is yes, God can answer our prayers. God will not answer your prayer, however, by making your boss give you a raise, or killing a rapist, or curing you of cancer. God can, however, answer your prayers by giving you the strength and courage to go on. God can answer your prayers by giving you comfort in your time of need.
And God can, I believe, give us hints about what is best for us. When an atheist listens to that still, small voice inside that tells them the difference between right and wrong, it may be that person’s own moral compass speaking. Or, it may be God.
This may not be the all-powerful God many atheists don’t believe in. But it is the God that feels true to me.
May 29, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I’ve never really considered myself to be “normal.” What I mean by that is I’ve always felt different from most other people. It probably started with my toes. The second and third toe on each of my feet are joined about half way up. (They are not, I must clarify, webbed!) It didn’t take me long to discover my toes are not normal. Somehow, I took this to mean I am not normal.
My mother once told me that, when I was born, the doctors suggested my toes be surgically separated. I’ve always been glad my parents told them to leave my toes alone. Early on, I found I like being different.
It’s not just my toes, though. In recess at elementary school I often found myself to be the only girl playing kickball on a field full of boys. I traded in pants for dresses at school the moment I was allowed to do so (second grade). I’ve been told I give directions like a boy and I run like a boy. I like math. I play video games that are predominantly played by men and boys.
My husband says in High School he thought of me as “adventure girl,” and that’s one of the things that attracted him to me. Unlike the other girls, I played touch football and did other things with the boys that were adventurous and fun.
I started reflecting on all this as I was reading the book, “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. I find it fascinating that, while some of the transgender writers in this book seem to be heading toward what might be called “normalcy” by choosing a gender expression that matches the gender they know themselves to be inside, others do not subscribe to the male/female binary model. Instead, they see themselves as neither completely male nor completely female.
One writer describes themselves as a “mosaic.” I am encouraged by the bravery and the self-knowledge it must take for such a person to recognize and honor who they are inside and to reflect that in how they present themselves to the world, regardless of what the world may consider to be “normal.”
I feel this way not because I don’t feel wholly female (I do, in fact, feel wholly female), but I recognize the knife’s edge of difference there must be between me, a woman with many male tendencies, and a person born in a female body who knows themselves to be a male person.
I feel this way also because I have been struggling a bit lately with my experience doing taharah (ritually washing a dead person and preparing her for burial) and shmirah (watching over or guarding a person’s body between the time of death and burial). I have found that I am now very comfortable being around dead people, and although I was hoping this would happen, I am also aware that this comfort is not considered “normal” by most people.
This past weekend, I began to wonder whether this comfort I have developed means there is something wrong with me. I have realized that, by doing this work, I am becoming less “normal.”
Thus, I am encouraged and strengthened by others who are successfully declaring that normal for them is different than what may seem normal for others. It’s something I have embraced in the past, and I hope it is something I will continue to embrace in the future.
May 22, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
On the evening of Shavuot last week, congregants covering a wide range of ages gathered around a fire pit behind the Religious School of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. There, we were lucky enough to get a small taste of what the Midrasha (Hebrew High School) kids have been experiencing once a week for the last several school years.
It was Day Schildkret’s award-winning Fire Circle. Day explained that, up until recent times, it was common for people to gather around a fire in the evening. For thousands of years, the fire pit was a place for conversation, song, and shared community. With the advent of electricity, such experiences are rare, but our instincts and connection to fire have not completely faded away. It is still possible to look around the circle at the faces lit by fire and feel connected to those who have come before us.
Day spoke about the culture of the Fire Circle. It is a place for people to speak truth. And when people speak truth, it is important they know we have heard them. When someone speaks a truth and it resonates with those in the circle, they say, “Shamati,” Hebrew for “I have heard.”
It may seem like a small thing, but it is so common to feel that when we’re speaking, the next person is not really listening, but is planning how they will respond. That evening in the circle I experienced the visceral power of saying something deeply meaningful to me, after which there was a chorus of people saying, “Shamati.” Similarly, after speaking a person may add “Dibarti,” Hebrew for “I have spoken.”
Day spoke about the holiday of Shavuot, and the counting of the omer, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. He spoke about leaving slavery in Egypt, and traveling until we were ready to accept the covenant at Mt. Sinai. He asked us to think about a narrow place we had been in the past, and what commitment we had made or were now planning to make in order to leave that narrow place behind.
As each person spoke about their commitment, Day handed them a piece of yarn they could tie as a symbol of that commitment.
Somehow, in the space of only an hour, with a group of people ranging from teens to retirement age, Day and the fire were able to create an atmosphere of openness and trust. I can’t even begin to imagine the depth and meaning this group has been able to achieve with high school students meeting consistently for two hours per week.
It is a rare and beautiful thing to encounter an experience like this Fire Circle. A number of adults remarked how they wished they’d had access to such an experience when they were in high school. I am grateful that those transitioning from childhood toward adulthood in our community have the chance to experience it now, and that I was able to have a taste of it, however brief it may have been.
May 15, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The Big One is coming. We Californians know it. We don’t know how big it will be, when it will hit, or where the epicenter will be, but we know another big earthquake will happen in our state. When it does, each of us will fall into one of three categories: Victim, rescuer, or bystander.
There are precautions we can take against being a victim, but there are no guarantees. Even if we strap down our water heaters, bolt our bookshelves to the walls, and take other measures, the fact is that if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can be injured or killed in an earthquake.
But once the shaking stops, those of us who are not killed or injured will find ourselves faced with a choice: Will we be a rescuer, or a bystander?
As we have seen with other disasters, when there is a large event impacting large numbers of people, professional first responders are overwhelmed. While they concentrate on areas with large numbers of people (city centers, sporting and other event venues), large fires and the like, those in the less dense, outlying areas, in particular, will be left to fend for themselves, at least for a while.
Who is going to check in on the elderly person living on your street? Who is going to know how to turn off the gas that you smell leaking from next door? Who is going to provide first aid to the neighbor with a broken leg? If you’re waiting for the police, the fire fighters, or the local utility company, you’re going to have a long wait.
That’s why we have CERT – Community Emergency Response Teams. These volunteers are trained to help in an emergency, when professional first responders are overwhelmed, and citizens need to fend for themselves for the first day or three.
Last weekend, I participated in an advanced CERT class on urban search and rescue. After a review of material from the basic class on first aid, splinting, etc., we received additional training on radio communications, breaking through barriers, securing victims to a board to carry them out of harm’s way, and systematically searching building interiors.
We then were put through our paces in two separate scenarios, in which we entered a dark building to find and rescue “victims” who were feigning various forms of injury, from leg wounds to complete unconsciousness. In order to get to some of them, we had to cut or break our way through sheetrock, screens, or other obstacles, or climb through windows, etc.
It was a lot of fun. But that’s not why I did it.
I did it because, when the Big One (or any other disaster hits), if I’m not a victim, I don’t want to just be a bystander.
I want to make sure my neighbors are safe, and to help them if I can. When the police and medical professionals do finally arrive, I want to be able to tell them the status of things in our area – who seems to be okay, and who needs their help the most.
Or, I want to be working in a shelter, where I can be tending to the needs of large numbers of people who need water, food, and a place to rest.
The last place I want to be is sitting at home, not knowing what’s happening around me, worrying, and wondering when the lights are going to come back on.
If being a rescuer rather than a bystander sounds good to you, then look up your local CERT organization, and sign up for the basic training. You don’t need to be particularly young or athletic. You don’t have to have medical or engineering knowledge. No matter your experience or abilities, there is a role you can play in CERT as a volunteer.
Be a rescuer, not a bystander.
May 6, 2013 | 11:01 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
CNN and other media outlets have been reporting the difficulty Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s family is having as they try to find a place to bury his body. Tsarnaev, of course, is the Boston Marathon bombing suspect who died after a firefight with law enforcement officers.
Not only are cemeteries refusing the body, but there are reports that a funeral home that handled the body briefly is receiving threats of boycotts.
Tsarnaev was a Muslim, and Muslim burial practices are very similar to traditional Jewish burial practices. The body is ritually washed, then dressed in shrouds. Prayers are said. Afterward, the body is buried, not cremated. The preference is to bury the body as soon after death as is reasonably possible. Throughout, the focus is on paying respect to the dead.
I can understand that survivors of the bombing, as well as friends and families of the survivors and those who died are angry. Many other people are angry. The bombing was a terrible act. And although nobody has yet been convicted of this act of terrorism, the surviving Tsarnaev brother has apparently confirmed that he and his brother were the perpetrators. There is little to no doubt that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is guilty.
There is also no doubt that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is now dead. His body must be disposed of in some manner. It must be handled by at least one funeral home, and it must be buried somewhere.
I understand some cemeteries don’t want the publicity associated with burying him. If they do so, they are likely to be subject to threats of boycotts, picketing, and even violence. The grave may be vandalized. Crowds might appear around the time of the burial, on the anniversary of the bombing, and at other times. It would be a big inconvenience, and may result in a loss of business.
However, Tamerlan Tsarnaev is survived by family members who are completely innocent. They had nothing to do with the bombing. But they have a dead family member they need to bury. They have a grieving process that cannot properly begin until that body is safely in the ground. Every cemetery that refuses the body, and every person who, in any way, thwarts the burial process, is adding to the pain of innocents. That is not okay.
Perhaps the best solution is to try to find a cemetery that will bury the body in an undisclosed, unmarked grave, at least for the time being. Perhaps a year from now, or in five years, a marker can be added to the grave. I know there are people in the media who will try to track down the location of the grave. Most likely, they will be successful in doing so, and say it’s because the public has a “right to know.”
But right now, innocent people have the right and the need to dispose of the remains of their family member. Whether or not you believe the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves respect and rest, his family members deserve the ability to lay him to rest, and to get on with their grief.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a Muslim. There must be some Muslim cemetery, somewhere in Massachusetts or the surrounding states, which is willing to step up and do the right thing.
May 1, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Kavod v’Nichum, the organization that assists chevra kadisha groups, synagogues and others regarding mitzvot concerning chaplaincy, burial, mourning, and related topics, recently hosted a webinar titled, “Ritual Washing for Non-Jews After Death.” The webinar presenters were two Board members of Kavod v’Nichum: Rick Light from New Mexico and Rabbi Stuart Kelman from the San Francisco Bay Area.
One of the primary tasks of a chevra kadisha is to perform Taharah, the ritual washing and preparing for burial of a Jewish person after his/her death. As Jews have assimilated into American society, intermarriage and other interactions have increased, such that now there are many Gentiles who are active in Jewish life. They are spouses and partners of Jews, mothers and fathers of Jews, sisters and brothers of Jews.
They schlep kids to and from Hebrew school, they attend services, they host seders, and they do numerous other things that involve them in Jewish life. Many of them, when they die, want to be buried near their Jewish partners and relatives. Increasingly, we can expect they will ask whether Taharah can be performed on them after they die.
In response, Rick Light, in concert with Conservative Rabbi Stuart Kelman, is pioneering a new ritual, similar to Taharah, but different for non-Jews. He says he has not used this ritual yet, but he is in the process of finalizing a manual describing how to do it. One can imagine the first such ritual may take place in the coming year.
The webinar described the Taharah process as including the following five steps, which will remain in the new ritual, but which will be modified. They are:
The plan is to use English, rather than Hebrew, throughout the ritual, and to use what Rick Light calls “secular and generic Biblical readings” in place of the traditional prayers, as well as simple bows on the burial garments rather than the specially tied bows used in Taharah.
The new ritual has been carefully thought out. It does, however, raise the question, “Why do we need a special ritual at all?” Not to mention, “What makes a prayer ‘secular and generic’ rather than Jewish?”
First, most of the Taharah ritual is minhag, or custom. It is not required by halacha or Jewish law, and I am not aware of any law prohibiting Taharah from being performed on a person who is not Jewish. Nor did the hosts of the webinar or the participants seem to be aware of any such law. Why not just perform Taharah, and be done with it?
Upon further examination, there are a couple of places in which there are references, for a man, to his covenant with God as evidenced by his circumcision, but those passages could be removed. I frankly don’t see the need for rewriting the prayers wholesale, or changing the bows or other aspects of the ritual. I might feel differently if the prayers were changed to express gratitude to the deceased for so wholeheartedly supporting the Jewish people, but that does not appear to be the intent of any of the new, proposed prayers.
I am also uncomfortable with whether the people on whom this ritual will be performed will truly understand what they will be getting. If a Jew asks for Taharah for his or her non-Jewish loved one, will they, or the loved one before his/her death, understand that what they will actually be getting will be a new, modified ritual that differs in several ways from what a Jew would get? After all, it can be hard enough to explain Taharah to the uninitiated, let alone a new ritual like this.
I have to say, I’m not convinced I like this new ritual. In my mind, it either goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough. Either we should change as little as possible, eliminating just the phrases that refer to a circumcision, or we should create something entirely new, eliminating the pouring of the ritual water, using no special bows, and using English readings honoring the sacrifices the deceased has made in supporting the Jewish people.
What do you think?