Within the Jewish sets of laws and traditions, every life event has its own set of guidelines. This is true in death as well. When a person passes away, a group of Jewish people—keepers of sorts—remains behind to watch the body the entire time before the funeral and participates in a process known as a tahara, a spiritual event that involves protecting the dignity of the deceased and preparing them for a proper burial within Jewish law.
Tahara, or purification, is conducted by a Jewish burial society, of which there are many around the world, known as the Chevra Kadisha. The Chevra Kadisha of Westchester is a volunteer effort where members of the community of great character are trained to perform the tahara.
A tahara is a significant event. Just as a newborn gets washed and dressed, the final act before a Jewish person is buried also involves washing and dressing the body. The deceased person is dressed in white linen and lowered into a casket wrapped in a linen sheet before the casket is closed.
Directed by Nancy Klein, the Westchester Chevra Kadisha was founded by Congregation Rosh Pinah in 1985 to serve the needs of Westchester County; prior to its creation, no Chevra Kadisha was located in the county.
Today, the Chevra Kadisha comprises approximately 60 men and women from Riverdale and Westchester who range in age from 19 to 86, working in seven funeral homes in the county. There is an average of 250 taharas a year, which represents approximately 25 percent of Jewish funerals in the county.
On the seventh of Adar, the Chevra Kadisha hosts a dinner for all members. The significance of the day is the birth and death of Moshe. When his life ended, Hashem prepared him for burial; the Chevras of today emulate the same care and dignity to commemorate the deceased’s passing.
Klein was recently honored by YIOZ, the Young Israel Ohab Zedek of North Riverdale/Yonkers. A Yonkers resident for her entire life, she has become very active in serving the needs of the community. «I was born with the idea that you support and give back to the community,» she said in a YIOZ video. «It was the natural thing to do.» She has been involved in the Orthodox Union, YIOZ and the Jewish Community Center and devoted her time to a local hospital. Of taharas, she says, «It’s not an easy thing to do but it is very, very satisfying because it’s the very last thing you can do for a person and they can’t thank you—there’s no discussion about it—but we prepare each person with love and dignity.»
The Westchester Chevra Kadisha is part of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, which provides education for its members and the Jewish community at large.
By Tamar Weinberg