Cemetery pros, hevras dig in to contemporary issues in Portland
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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The first ever North American Jewish Cemetery Conference held in Portland June 11-13 drew 150 people from 23 states, Canada and Scotland to discuss the holy work of burial practices and how they are impacted by intermarriage, suicide, cremation and a host of contemporary issues.
Combined with the fourth Hevra Kadisha Conference, the conference attracted a broad range of speakers and participants from across the spectrum of observance including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and Reconstructionist. Opening session speaker Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski said the interaction between traditional and liberal "all here together talking—that is significant."
The conference was the brain child of Neveh Shalom cemetery chair Leonard Barde, who wanted to know how others dealt with the myriad concerns he has helped his Conservative congregation address for many years. Congregation Neveh Shalom and Kavod v'Nichum sponsored the national conference with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation.
"All in all it comes back to tselem elokim (image of God), hesed, continuity, community and holy trembling that can and should guide us," said Ozarowski, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the Rabbinic Chaplain to the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago. "We may not agree (on every issue) ? but I hope we'll have interesting discussions during the next couple days."
Actually, Ozarowski and keynote speaker Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorf did agree on many issues, especially the need to deal compassionately with contemporary reality.
Both rabbis agreed that Jewish law strictly forbids cremation, yet both spoke of the need to deal reverently with the soul and body of the cremated and compassionately with the family.
"Halakah is very, very clear ? people who are cremated don't get into heaven," said Ozarowski, noting the ban is based on biblical law that recognizes the body as holding the soul and holding the image of God. "At the same time, there are needs that must be addressed."
Discussing a case in which a young man living across the country from his family was cremated despite the family's objections, he said "We dealt with the needs of the living." Though the family couldn't sit shiva, Ozarowski said he came up with a format for a gathering where the family could "talk and accept the condolences of the community."
However, Dorf said, "Judaism is not an all or nothing thing. "It's a question of how much ? For me, the more Jewish you can make it, the better."
"If we can't convince the family not to cremate, we would do the tahara (ritual cleansing and dressing of the body) and we would say kaddish declaring God is great," he said. "The person is still a Jew ? and needs to be mourned as such."
Dorf said he doesn't believe the hevra should accompany, or a Jewish mortuary should deliver, the body to the crematorium because that would be "abetting something against Jewish law."
Dorf also discussed suicide and why suicides are seldom, if ever, required to be buried outside a Jewish cemetery.
A person who commits suicide is assumed to be momentarily insane and thus not in control of that decision, according to Dorf. As such, they are buried as if they had suffered a natural death, he said.
Dorf said he believes that Jewish tradition has two fundamental principles that address many issues for end-of-life care and after death.
"The first principle is God owns our bodies," he said, noting that is very different from the Western, liberal tradition that each individual has full rights over their body. "In Jewish tradition, God owns your body in your lifetime and death. It's like renting an apartment. You have fair use of your body during your lease ? with restrictions—you may not destroy it since it isn't yours."
Dorf said proper hygiene, diet, sleep and exercise is a fiduciary duty under Jewish law.
Kavod Hameis, honor due to a body and the deceased person, is the second Jewish principle guiding death and burial practices, he said.
Halakah actually says very little about burial practices, said Dorf. Halakah talks about differences between men and women, how much water is used to immerse the body, and that the body is buried in a shroud "so we are all equal in death," he said, noting nearly all other practices are a matter of custom.
Dorf speculated that specific burial and mourning practices were not created as law in recognition that when a loved one dies, people are at their wit's end.
"At the end of life, we are really interested in honoring the dead and enabling the living to mourn," he said. "And the way people will do that will vary from person to person and family to family."
However, both rabbis agreed that proper burial of the dead and aiding the mourners are a community responsibility under Jewish law.
Ozarowski pointed to Talmud Moed Katan 27b, which states: "If there is a death in the city, all citizens are forbidden to do work (in order to tend to the needs of the deceased)."
"It's not always possible for all to do that," said Ozarowski. He said that puts another dimension on the work of the hevra kadisha, noting if a community doesn't have a hevra to do the holy work and the whole community doesn't take responsibility for preparing the body for burial and comforting the bereaved, then "the whole town has gone bad."
"When we do tahara ? we feel a goodhearted, we feel a sense of fulfillment by reaching out to someone created in God's image and comforting the bereaved," said Ozarowski of the work of hevras. "Another element is we are representing the community."
Conference chair Harley Felstein said that the dedication and good-heartedness of those who take care of cemeteries and who are members of hevras made the conference a very special event.
"These people are concerned individuals who take to hear what they are doing," said Felstein.
Felstein said the conference met all of the organizers' expectations. He praised conference coordinator Michelle Caplan, of Congregation Neveh Shalom, and Kavod v'Nichum Executive Director David Zinner for making the conference "a very intense two and half days."
Caplan called the conference a very powerful experience. She said the feedback from participants has been very positive.