Hevra Kadisha - End of Life
What Is Hevra Kadisha At PSJC?
For centuries, every Jewish community maintained its own Hevra Kadisha—a sacred fellowship whose members lovingly cleanse, dress, lay out and watch over the bodies of the dead until burial. In cooperation with our G'maCh (Kindness) and Cemetery Committees, PSJC currently maintains the only Hevra Kadisha in Brooklyn (and one of only four citywide) under egalitarian Jewish auspices.
Our Hevra Kadisha volunteers are on call to fulfill the imperatives of hesed shel emet (true kindness, or kindness at the moment of truth) for PSJC members and their immediate relatives who die in our community. Sh'mirah (vigil-keeping) volunteers—men, women, and teenagers—sit in pairs for two-hour shifts around the clock. Taharah (cleansing and dressing) is performed in the early morning or late evening by a small group of volunteers—women for women, and men for men—under the guidance of an experienced team leader.
Here are some words from community members about their experiences with the Hevra Kadisha:
“We learned about the simple funeral plan and the Hevra Kadisha. I found the experience very comforting. Not being familiar with the Jewish funeral laws and traditions, I was concerned about my father’s transition after his death. Learning about sh’mirah (sitting with the deceased until burial) and taharah (washing and dressing ritual) relieved me from my worries. Knowing that volunteers from PSJC would be caring for my father reassured me that he would make the transition with greater ease....
“When the dreaded day arrived, and my father died, PSJC helped us through all the details....My father was then personally accompanied to the funeral home, where pairs of PSJC volunteers kept vigil for him around the clock until the end of the funeral. The men’s team of the PSJC Hevra Kadisha performed taharah for my father. Even though my father passed away on the Sabbath of Memorial Day weekend, we received complete and loving care from his new community....
“Members of the PSJC community also came to visit my family at my parents’ home where we were sitting for the first week of mourning. Our family is very grateful to Park Slope Jewish Center for ‘holding our hands’ and making this sad experience more bearable.” - Daughter of PSJC members
“[A]s I was leaving [my shift], one of the women who replaced me asked how I knew [the woman who had died]. I wondered what she thought when I said that I did not know her at all and I wondered how many others performing sh'mirah or taharah did not know her either. While on the one hand we'd like to have a community in which we all know each other, that's just not likely when we're talking about hundreds of people with varying levels of involvement....As I learned about [the deceased woman] I regretted not knowing her, but at the same time I think it speaks well for a community that takes care of its own regardless of the level of personal connection.” PSJC Hevra Kadisha Member
As our community grows, so does our need to stay connected. Our Hevra Kadisha continues to welcome additional PSJC members to our ranks for both sh'mirah and taharah. The only prerequisite is a willingness to be respectful and cooperative in the presence of the dead. If you would like to learn more and receive updates about future educational programs, please write to us. Please see below for Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs).
The PSJC Simple Funeral Plan: Leaving a Legacy of Comfort and Hope
One of the most difficult situations we face in life is arranging for the funeral of a loved one. Today as in ancient times, families often feel pressured into spending huge sums of money on funerals, sometimes even going into debt—especially if they are making all the decisions about arrangements immediately after someone has died.
Jewish tradition stresses simplicity and affirms the equality of all human beings at death. We are encouraged to take the money that might otherwise be spent on a more lavish funeral and direct it toward life-giving tzedakah (righteous giving).
PSJC offers its members the opportunity to participate in a simple Jewish funeral plan, currently in cooperation with a nearby funeral home. Those who elect to participate in this plan will be able—with one telephone call—to arrange for a traditional Jewish funeral that includes:
Services of a licensed funeral director and all basic arrangements
Transfer of the dead to the funeral home
Refrigeration (as required by law)
Sh’mirah—the traditional vigil over the dead
Taharah—the traditional ritual washing, purification, and dressing of the body
Takhrikhim—simple white burial garments
A simple, unfinished wood coffin
Use of the funeral home chapel and facilities
A hearse to transport the dead to the cemetery
A temporary grave marker, shiv’ah candle, and guest registry book
For more details, download the brochure.
Hevrah Kadisha FAQs
Why is the Hevra Kadisha so important?
Death is part of life. In times of illness and loss, our Jewish imperatives of kindness call us to show up and care for each other, regardless of our social connections or professional credentials. Most synagogues that seek to organize as supportive communities face a major challenge to their caring efforts when it comes to honoring the dead. We have found that the Hevra Kadisha provides comfort for those who grieve, enriches the lives of those who serve, and strengthens our community as a whole.
Doesn’t the funeral home take care of everything?
The services of the Hevra Kadisha are considered optional at most Jewish funeral homes. Upon request, funeral homes usually bring in fee-for-service taharah teams, and pay an hourly or shift rate for sh’mirah. Just as we don’t rely upon outside professionals to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved in our PSJC community, we believe that those who die in our community should be cared for by members of our community, and not by strangers, at the sacred and vulnerable time of death.
If I volunteer, how often will I be called?
We understand that, when you are on call, you can only be available when you are available. That’s why we always welcome new volunteers, since we never know who will be available when our community’s next time of need will arise. We may go for a year or more without a mobilization, or we may find ourselves mobilizing twice in the span of a month—for an overnight, or for 2-3 days before a funeral. If you sign up, you will be asked to specify any limits on your availability, including how early and how late you can be called. You decide.
What if I have young children at home?
A significant number of our PSJC Hevra Kadisha volunteers are parents of young children, and take turns looking after their children during a mobilization. We have found that young children are respectfully curious about their parents’ involvement in this kind of effort. Encouraging their questions as part of a family dialogue helps to insure that the values of caring for our own at death will be reclaimed and passed on to the next generation.
I don’t think I can deal directly with the dead. Are there other ways I can help?
Absolutely—and thanks for asking! Here are some other ways you can stay connected:
Come and show your support at our annual Hevra Kadisha dinner and program, which is an opportunity for the community as a whole to eat, drink, and celebrate our caring community. Our 3rd annual Hevra Kadisha dinner in 2007 featured "Ways of Peace: A Jewish / Muslim Dialogue on Preparing the Dead for Burial." Our 5th annual Hevra Kadisha dinner in February 2009 drew nearly 60 participants to learn about the range of approaches to Jewish afterlife—and, the following morning, about the connection to Jewish "interlife" in our sacred burial fellowship work.