“I have a hard time conceiving of a God completely removed from suffering,” says Christian Wiman, a lecturer in religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. “Once I understand the notion of Christ participating in suffering, then it makes more sense to me.”
A pro-Israel group is calling on public schools in a suburban Boston district to remove “hateful education materials from their curricula.”Click here for the rest of the article...
NEW YORK (JTA) — A pro-Israel group is calling on public schools in a suburban Boston district to remove “hateful education materials from their curricula.”
Americans for Peace and Tolerance in a newspaper ad campaign claims the Newton schools are using five materials that “demonize Israel and America while glorifying Islam.” They include the books “A Muslim Primer,” “The Arab World Studies Workbook” and several handouts.
JTA calls seeking comment from Newton Mayor Setti Warren and School Committee Chair Matt Hills were not immediately returned.
Americans for Peace and Tolerance, founded in 2008 by Boston activist and David Project founder Charles Jacobs, was a prominent critic of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
The Roxbury center opened following a 5-year-long legal battle that included APT claims that extremists controlled and funded the society.
Jacobs also is a frequent critic of the Anti-Defamation League.
JTA is soliciting readers’ ideas for reversing the tide of Jewish assimilation in America. Here’s today’s featured idea:
We need to foster family celebrations of Shabbat and holidays that are not specifically religious in nature, are held outside synagogues and impose no pressure to join anything.
Every Friday afternoon, pick a park, beach, or someone’s backyard and program 30-45 minutes of entertainment with an educational and spiritual component. The activities, which can include singing, games for the family or even puppet shows for the kids, can culminate with grape juice, challah and candles. Serve cookies. Print up some song sheets with transliterated Hebrew blessings and some English songs.
Ask for a donation of some non-perishable food to be donated to an organization feeding the hungry as the “price of admission” to such an event, but don’t harangue those who don’t bring anything.
This is a non-threatening, non-coercive, hassle-free time to do something Jewish together (but not too Jewish) on a Jewish occasion. These gatherings, which I call “Shabbat@ _____” can be simple, fun functions to introduce the idea of family and community around a time of physical relaxation and spiritual renewal.
There are many young families with children who are not interesting in coming into our synagogues. We must find them on neutral turf.
Rabbi Gerald B. Weiss
West Palm Beach, Florida
Read more ideas for stemming the tide of American Jewish disengagement here.
To share your idea, send an email describing one concrete idea in 200 words or less to firstname.lastname@example.org ( include your full name, city, and state or country). Our favorites will be featured online.
More than 5,000 people, including prominent French politicians, scholars and clergymen, have signed a petition against attempts to ban ritual circumcision of boys in Europe.Click here for the rest of the article...
The Jewish community of Balta in Ukraine has lost its bid to gain possession of a former synagogue which it helped build.Click here for the rest of the article...
Women of the Wall has more influence over prayer at the Kotel than ever. So why do some members accuse the movement’s leaders of selling out its most cherished ideals?Click here for the rest of the article...
(JTA) — More than 5,000 people, including prominent French politicians, scholars and clergymen, have signed a petition against attempts to ban ritual circumcision of boys in Europe.
Titled “no to a ban on circumcision,” the petition was published on Oct. 16 by CRIF, the umbrella organization representing France’s Jewish communities, following the Oct. 1 passing of a Council of Europe resolution that calls male ritual circumcision a “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
Among the co-signatories of the petition are Anne Hidalgo, a candidate in next year’s Paris mayoral elections; the director Claude Lanzmann and Claude Goasguen and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, both former government ministers. By Thursday, the petition had more than 5,500 signatures.
The non-binding resolution by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly “targets European Jewish communities that are already exposed to the unprecedented resurgence of anti-Semitism,” the petition reads. “It is inconceivable to those who survived the Holocaust” and “dangerous because it stigmatizes Jews,” the petition reads.
Other co-signatories include Patrick Dubois, a French Catholic priest and Holocaust scholar, and Alain Massini, a well-known Protestant pastor.
The text of the petition also characterizes the resolution as “insulting” because it “equates between circumcision and [female genital] mutilation.”
In the resolution, “female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons” are listed together as examples of “violations of the physical integrity of children, which supporters of the procedures tend to present as beneficial to the children themselves despite clear evidence to the contrary.”
But Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, wrote in a letter earlier this month that the resolution does not equate the two practices.
How did three less-than-observant Broadway guys come up with the biggest Jewish musical ever? Eileen Reynolds explores the engaging story — and explains why it still matters.Click here for the rest of the article...
(JTA) – The Jewish community of Balta in Ukraine has lost its bid to gain possession of a former synagogue which it helped build.
The 100-year-old Savranskaya synagogue, which is now an abandoned building owned by the Ukrtelecom communications firm, will remain the firm’s property, the Odessa Administrative Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month.
The ruling reverses the 2011 ruling by the Balta District Court, which found that the Jewish community had claim to the building, according to a report published last week in the Russian news site Dumskaya.
The Jewish community of Balta paid 2,500 rubles in 1903 for the construction of the building, but the appeals court found this irrelevant.
The building stopped being used as a synagogue during the Holocaust years and the Soviet government turned it into an apartment block until 1964, when the national telephone company started using it.
The company kept the building after its privatization and has owned it since 2003.
When the synagogue was built, Balta had 13,200 Jewish residents — more than half its total population, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. But because of Soviet persecution, only 4,700 remained by 1941 when German troops seized the area and began perpetrating mass executions of Jews with help from Romanian soldiers.
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Yad Vashem is partnering with the Aladdin Project to hold a Holocaust education seminar in Turkey.
Some 20 academics who teach in private and public universities in Turkey will participate in the program organized by the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, in cooperation with the Aladdin Project and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance at Galatasaray University in Istanbul.
The Aladdin Project to promote intercultural relations between Muslims and Jews was launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in March 2009, and has since been supported by more than 1,000 intellectuals, academics and public figures from over 50 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.
Thursday’s seminar is the first of a five-part educational initiative on Holocaust education and anti-Semitism for Turkish academics.
In June 2014, the group will visit Jerusalem for a weeklong seminar at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
The seminar comes the same week that the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that anti-Semitism triggered by the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and Israel is spurring young Turkish Jews to leave the country.
Hundreds of young Turkish Jews have immigrated to the United States or Europe in recent years, Nesim Guvenis, deputy chairman the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, told the Hurriyet Daily News.
He told Hurriyet that the unease of Jews in Turkey became exacerbated after the Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli Naval commandoes killed nine Turkish citizens when intercepting the ship attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
By Cantor Cheryl Wunch
There are many different themes that appear throughout our Yom Kippur liturgy. Obviously, the themes of repentance, returning, and renewal are the ones that most immediately come to mind. We speak and sing of our sins, our need for forgiveness, and our desire to start again with a clean slate. The service itself is one filled with majesty, drama, and a sense of spiritual urgency that can often be felt in the air. While there are many liturgical moments that are unique to the Yom Kippur service, there is one particularly interesting liturgical anomaly that is repeated multiple times throughout the traditional Yom Kippur service, and has also made its way into our Reform Machzor; the Thirteen Attributes of God. This piece of liturgy is also known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, or Shalosh Esrei Middot HaRachamim.
The Thirteen Attributes originates in Parshat Ki Tisa, after the debacle with the Golden Calf. Moses returns to the top of the mountain, and pleads to know God’s nature. God commands Moses to craft the second set of tablets, and then God descends in a cloud, shields Moses’ eyes, and proclaims: “The Eternal One, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” After this statement Moses bows low, and asks God to accompany the Israelites and forgive them of their sins. The Thirteen Attributes, as it appears in our liturgy, is an abbreviated version of this speech, ending with “granting pardon.” For those trying to count the thirteen, there are a number of explanations, the most common from the Talmud is as follows:
- Adonai – compassion before a person sins;
- Adonai – compassion after a person has sinned;
- El – almighty;
- Rachum – merciful;
- Chanun – gracious;
- Erech appayim – endlessly patient;
- Rav chesed – abounding in lovingkindness;
- Emet – and in truth;
- Notzer chesed laalafim — showing mercy to thousands;
- Noseh avon – forgiving iniquity;
- Vafeshah – and transgression;
- V’chatah – and sin;
- Venakeh – and granting pardon.
What I find strange about this text is that even though it is repeated throughout our service, it is neither a prayer, nor a blessing, nor a request. It is a revelation, a statement of fact. So why then, is it so prominent in our prayer service?
To find out why we repeat this text, we must first look at when we repeat this text. The recitation of the Thirteen Attributes appears most often in the penitential prayers during the Selichot period (the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah), during the 10 Days of Repentance, multiple times on Yom Kippur and on other fast days. The Thirteen Attributes is also added to the Torah service on Festivals, but not on Shabbat, right before taking the Torah from the Ark. Some communities begin this practice at the beginning of Elul, as part of their “warm-up” to the Days of Awe. It is fairly easy to understand why these words are added to the penitential prayers; we are repenting for our sins, and asking for God’s forgiveness, and so reminding ourselves (and maybe reminding God!) how merciful, loving, and forgiving God is can help us to have faith that we will, indeed, be granted pardon. The Talmud (Rosh Hashana, 17b) even teaches that simply reciting these words will bring about God’s forgiveness. This statement has been hotly debated by the rabbis, some claiming that it is not the words themselves that are effective, but the understanding of the words and the attempt to emulate these characteristics that brings about God’s compassion. Regardless of which side you take in this debate, it is clear to see why this text fits into the penitential prayers.
Despite its traditional appearance in the penitential prayers, most Reform Jews, one might argue, are most familiar with this text from its place in the Torah service on the High Holidays. I find the placement of this text during the Torah service on Yom Kippur to be especially compelling. On this day, we stand in front of the ark and proclaim these words, even though they have been stated many other times throughout the holiday. This particular recitation stands out. It is more majestic. It is more obvious. It is more dramatic. As we stand in front of the ark, readying ourselves to read from the sacred scroll, we are not stating the Thirteen Attributes as an addition to our petitions, but as an emulation of the One who first uttered these words. Our Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yochanan, taught that God covered the Holy face, like a prayer leader wrapped in a tallit, and taught Moses the order of these words. In this way, God became the Ultimate Shaliach Tzibbur (messenger of the congregation), and showed us all how to properly lead our people in prayer. When we stand before the ark and sing or chant the Thirteen Attributes, we are performing this rite just as God taught us to do. It is a dramatic scene – we stand up at the highest point of the synagogue, like standing on the mountain, and with our faces hidden from the congregation, proclaim aloud the attributes which we all work to emulate. Only then are we ready to remove the Torah from the ark and begin the pageantry of the Torah reading, as Moses did when he brought the second set of tablets down to the people. The presentation of the Thirteen Attributes at this point in the service is not done with the humility of penitence, but rather with awe, respect, and a yearning for the ability to strive towards these attributes for ourselves.
One way that many congregations choose to make this moment in our service stand out is by using music to communicate this text. There are many settings of the Thirteen Attributes that run the gamut from simple and declamatory, such as this setting by Lewandowski (LISTEN), to congregational and participatory, such as this setting by Leon Sher (LISTEN), to florid and awe-inspiring, such as this track by Max Helfman (LISTEN). Many settings also employ a call-and-response technique, such as this track by Abraham Moshe Bernstein (LISTEN) to include the choir and congregation. There are even updates on traditional melodies that include English translations, such as this track published by the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder (LISTEN), which help people fully to understand the text. While each of these musical settings is quite different, the one thing that they have in common is that they cause us to stop and truly consider the words that we are saying. We are not simply reciting a list, we are working to emulate the Almighty, and become better, more kindhearted people.
For those of you who have a little bit more than 10 minutes free for Torah today, I highly recommend listening to this instrumental composition of the 13 Attributes of Mercy by Gilbert Trout. What images does it conjure for you? Do you feel the majesty? Do you feel the pleading? Do you feel the desire to emulate, if only for a moment, all of the good that God is and has instilled in us? Close your eyes and listen… and may we all find the strength to continue to strive to be kinder, more compassionate, more patient and forgiving.
Sources (in order of examples):
Adonai, Adonai. Louis Lewandowski. From Songs of Repentance, Disc 2. Transcontinental Music Publications. 2001.
Adonai, Adonai. Leon Sher. From The First Album, Performed by Beged Kefet. 1987.
Adonai, Adonai. Max Helfman. From The Holy Ark. Union for Reform Judaism 68th Biennial CD. 2005.
Adonai, Adonai. Abraham Moshe Bernstein. From Festival Delights, Performed by Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi and the Anshe Emet Festival Choir. 1999.
Adonai, Adonai. From Prayers for Healing and High Holidays. Performed by Michelle Wolf and Joseph Lukasik. Published by the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder.
Cheryl Wunch has been the Cantor at Congregation Beth Am in Buffalo Grove, Il since her ordination in 2011. She also serves as the president of the Reform Cantors of Chicago. Her own blog can be found at wunchbreak.wordpress.com.
I hope you’re hungry, because tomorrow is Food Day and the RAC will be serving up a fresh webinar. Tune in a 10:00am EST for Eco-Kashrut: How Judaism Informs our Ethical Food Choices to hear from our special guests, Seth Goldman, TeaEO of Honest Tea, and Rabbi Mary Zamore, editor of “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”
Seth Goldman will bring us the perspective of a beverage-producing corporation with a mission that embodies the principles of food justice. Honest Tea is committed to using organic ingredients, promoting a healthy diet and ensuring Fair Trade working standards in the developing world.
Rabbi Mary Zamore is a long-time advocate for the environment and ethical eating. In “The Sacred Table,” various experts in the field of Jewish food ethics offer up personal and communal perspectives on food production, the environment, personal health, agricultural workers’ rights, animal rights, the spirituality of eating and fasting, gratitude, caring for the hungry, the challenges of eating together, and more.
Join the RAC in commemorating Food Day by joining the Eco-Kashrut: How Judaism Informs our Ethical Food Choices webinar tomorrow at 10:00am. In our daily morning prayer, we say, “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam poke’ach ivrim – Blessed are you who opens the eyes of the blind.” Allow this webinar to open your eyes to the many environmental challenges faced by our current global food system and how you can be an advocate for ethical food in your personal life and your community.
The "Save America Gathering" Led "555 Days of Prayer to Save America" Reaches Day 211, Amid Gridlock in the American Governmental System. Participants Engaged in Prayer for The...
(PRWeb October 01, 2013)
Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11182006.htm
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leader of the non-hasidic Lithuanian Ashkenazi community, was attacked at his home in Israel.Click here for the rest of the article...
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leader of the non-hasidic Lithuanian Ashkenazi community, was attacked at his home in Israel.
Shteinman, 99, suffered a bruise on his chest but was unhurt otherwise during the attack in Bnei Brak early Wednesday morning, The Jerusalem Post reported. His attacker — a haredi Orthodox man in his 20s — was arrested after being restrained by associates and followers of the rabbi until police arrived. The attacker shook and yelled at the rabbi.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered the attacker to be held over until Thursday and sent for a psychiatric evaluation.
Witnesses told police that the man said he was hearing voices telling him to attack Shteinman, The Jerusalem Post reported. The haredi news website Kikar Hashabat reported that the attack was related to Tuesday’s elections in which Shteinman’s Degel Hatorah party won eight seats on the Jerusalem Municipal Council, even though Moshe Lion, his endorsed candidate for mayor, lost.
JTA is soliciting readers’ ideas for reversing the tide of Jewish assimilation in America. Here’s today’s featured idea:
It’s time we show people who don’t see themselves as fitting into the norms of the Jewish community that they are welcome.
We’re good at welcoming “good Jews” who agree with us and want to be part of our synagogues, communities and institutions. But we have to learn to welcome our critics.
Synagogues should allow alternate services that appeal to people who don’t want to be with the rabbi or chazzan. Jewish federations should facilitate meetings between its leaders and people who are frustrated with the organized Jewish community. AIPAC should sponsor meetings for people who only want to kvetch about Israel.
Outliers can become partners in building the Judaism of the future – if they are welcomed and not shoved to the periphery.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Riverdale, New York
(Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open Orthodox rabbinical school in New York.)
Read more ideas for stemming the tide of American Jewish disengagement here.
To share your idea, send an email describing one concrete idea in 200 words or less to email@example.com (include your full name, city, and state or country). Our favorites will be featured online.
My synagogue, Kehillat Emet VeShalom in Nahariya, Israel, just completed a year of prayer services on our own without a rabbi. We recently met to reflect on the year and to voice our thoughts and opinions.
First, to set the mood and remind us of some of the special moments that we shared during the past year, we watched a YouTube clip of some of the year’s highlights. With this introduction and the help of a questionnaire, we began to discuss, in the three languages of our congregation (Hebrew, English and Spanish), our Shabbat and holiday celebrations.
We remembered that to ease the transition, our president and ritual committee chairperson, both of whom took on a slew of new and extra responsibilities due to the absence of a spiritual leader, made sure that our first month without a rabbi was planned ahead of time so that our weekly schedule of Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) services could continue without disruption. As one of the oldest Reform congregations in Israel, and the only one in the Western Galilee affiliated with Israel’s Reform and Progressive movements, we wanted to maintain our unbroken record of holding weekly services for the community, except during times of war, since our establishment in 1963.
As I wrote in “The Blessing of a Special Guest,” we faced our new challenge by arranging a schedule so that the three roles of leading our services were assigned to different members of the congregation on a voluntary basis. Additionally, as permitted by our shoestring budget or a scheduled bar/bat mitzvah, and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch’s volunteering to conduct Friday night services for several weeks, we occasionally had guest rabbis who gave us the extra spiritual nourishment that only a professional rabbi can provide.
Some members admitted that at the beginning, they felt unsure as to whether we would succeed, but at the end of the year, we overwhelmingly felt proud that we had pulled together to sustain our congregation. Our new reality had the positive effect of encouraging our multicultural and multilingual members to further integrate in order to overcome some of the differences between us. Without a rabbi, we discovered unknown talents and the hidden potential of many members who came forth willingly to contribute. Our ritual committee chairperson revealed that to her delight, she never received a negative response when she asked someone to give a drasha (discussion of the weekly Torah portion) or lead services. Moreover, some of the members who were not comfortable conducting services, stepped up their efforts in other areas for the well being of the congregation
Our discussion revealed that we unanimously agreed that the quality of the drashot at services was high and intellectually stimulating. Also, we were pleased that we were able to maintain our musical content via the participation of additional members and a talented musician who joined us; our services had remained spirited and full of song. Many congregants gave their heart and soul to our Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and so even when there were glitches or mistakes, our volunteers received gold stars, in our minds, for their efforts.
As we evaluated where we were and thought about where we are going, I realized that we had heeded the moral teachings of our sage Shammai, quoted in Pirkei Avot 1:15:
Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.
I believe this ethical saying reflects Emet VeShalom. Because Torah was a priority for so many members, each week someone delved into the week’s portion and other sources to prepare an erudite and insightful sermon that provided a high standard of material for meaningful discussion and thought within the congregation. People spoke through their actions by taking on extra, and often challenging, responsibilities so that we could carry on. Everyone made a commitment to put the overall good of the congregation above our individual differences.
Although there were frustrations and differences of opinion along the way and numerous perspectives on how services should be conducted, we strived to greet each other warmly, to be open-minded, and to thank everyone for their input and effort. We are a diverse group of Jews from Israel and around the world, but through our do-it-yourself approach, we united so that we can continue to be a vibrant spiritual community that shares the best Israel has to offer in terms of an egalitarian and pluralistic approach to Judaism. Of course, we would welcome a more constant rabbinical presence, but we are gratified that through our experience, we grew together and have energy to maintain our congregation as Israel’s northernmost outpost of Reform and Progressive Judaism.
Sharon Mann made aliyah more than 20 years ago and lives in Nahariya, Israel. She is an active member of Emet VeShalom, where she is on the Women of Reform Judaism Steering Committee and volunteers as International Contact Liaison.
British Jews don’t eat Chinese food on Christmas — instead many head to Limmud. And this year, in a controversial move, Britain’s new chief rabbi will join them.Click here for the rest of the article...
NEW YORK (JTA) — When his cousin died unexpectedly a few years ago, Hal Miller-Jacobs was recruited to oversee the funeral arrangements and wound up helping with the tahara — the traditional preparation of the body for burial.
For the first time in his life, the 76-year-old computer professional joined with other volunteers in carefully washing, cleaning and dressing the body in a simple white shroud.
“It was probably the most moving Jewish experience I ever had in my life,” Miller-Jacobs said.
But when he tried to volunteer with his local chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, he was turned away. Miller-Jacobs said he believes it’s because he is not Orthodox.
So Miller-Jacobs teamed up with Judith Himber, a friend and fellow congregant at his Conservative synagogue in Lexington, Mass., to launch Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, an inclusive Jewish burial society.
“We have no dissatisfaction with the work they do,” Miller-Jacobs said of the society that declined his membership. “We’re just looking to open this up to more people.”
(Henry Feuerstein, the coordinator for the Boston-area chevra kadisha Miller-Jacobs sought to join, did not respond to a call for comment.)
Often shrouded in secrecy, Jewish burial societies and traditional Jewish funeral rituals are largely unfamiliar to most non-Orthodox American Jews, who generally outsource the details of preparation and burial to funeral homes. Many American Jews increasingly are opting for cremation, long a Jewish taboo.
But now a growing network of liberal and pluralistic burial societies like the fledgling Boston one are hoping to popularize traditions that they believe offer powerful spiritual experiences and comfort in the face of death and loss.
“I see this as a major educational opportunity for the American Jewish community and frankly as a way for serving aging baby boomers,” said Stuart Kelman, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the Gamliel Institute, a training center that provides online courses addressing the how-tos of chevra kadisha work.
“They’re beginning to realize they’re going to die, and they’re going to come to the question of what is that all about, what do I do, what happens, how do I talk about this?” Kelman said. “The secular world is not prepared to deal with that, but the religious world is. And I’m hoping to create a large cadre of individuals around the country who will be able to deal with those questions and help guide the aging baby boomer population into settings — ideally synagogues — where these questions will be talked about openly, respectfully and Jewishly.”
Kelman says many Orthodox burial societies will only use Orthodox chevra kadisha members because they believe that those participating in the mitzvah of preparing the dead for burial must be Sabbath observant. Kelman’s institute seeks to broaden chevra kadisha societies beyond the Orthodox world.
In Boston, Community Hevra Kadisha has recruited more than 20 partner synagogues and obtained permission to do perform pre-burial rituals in a Jewish funeral home. It recently hosted a two-day training session attended by 100 would-be volunteers and recruited a board that includes bestselling author Anita Diamant.
Diamant is hoping to do for Jewish burial something akin to what she did for Jewish ritual baths with the founding a decade ago of Mayyim Hayyim, a “pluralist mikvah” in the Boston suburbs: Taking an ancient and often intimidating ritual traditionally the sole domain of the Orthodox and making it accessible, if not mainstream, for modern liberal Jews.
“It feels like part of the same wonderful movement of liberal Jews owning the tradition and feeling authentic in their understanding and practice,” Diamant said. “It’s one of the oldest things in the world, but it’s new for us — and that’s exciting.”
The Gamliel Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum, literally “honor and comfort,” a 13-year-old nonprofit that sponsors annual conferences for chevra kadisha groups and offers a variety of training and resource materials, including a how-to manual outlining tahara procedures.
The group was recognized this year in Slingshot’s Jewish innovation guide — no small coup for an organization focused on death and dying. Slingshot is a nine-year-old group best known for promoting innovative new programs that target Jews in their 20s and 30s.
Julie Finkelstein, Slingshot’s program director, said Kavod v’Nichum helps communities offer Jews a “moment for really deep, meaningful, substantive Jewish connection” at a time of loss when “they often seek out religious ritual.”
David Zinner, Kavod v’Nichum’s founding president and executive director, got involved in Jewish end-of-life issues in the mid-1990s when his Reconstructionist synagogue in Maryland was approached about buying a section in a new cemetery. While researching the issue, he discovered the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, a volunteer-run organization that helps arrange for affordable funerals. Before long, he was doing a tahara for the first time.
No one knows how many non-Orthodox chevra kadisha groups exist in North America, but Zinner said he is seeing a steady growth. He says he personally has led training sessions for groups seeking to get off the ground in 100 different locations over the past decade, including Los Angeles and Boston.
“We’re sort of unique in that we’re more than an educational organization,” Zinner said. “We’re also a community-organizing group.”
Michael Slater, a member of Chicago’s Progressive Chevra Kadisha and Kavod v’Nichum’s president, said the national group is in the process of transforming from a startup into an established organization.
“We think we’re doing something important, that addressing death openly and through the lens of Jewish tradition and practice counters the trend toward death denial in our culture,” said Slater, a 47-year-old emergency room doctor. “When you don’t think about death and don’t approach it in an intentional, focused way, then when it happens it’s all the more scary and painful.”