May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I was only 16 1/2 years old. But there I was, seriously considering doing something that even adults dread.

But I had no choice. I was “the rabbi.”

You see, together with my classmate, we were sent to a large town in Russia, where we spent the High Holidays.

“You will need to lead the services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”—sure, no problem.

“You will go around town, offering people the opportunity to shake the lulav and etrog”—our pleasure.

“You will dance on Simchat Torah and make sure that everyone is dancing as well”—sounds easy.

But in the middle of all that, we got an unexpected phone call. A Jewish person passed away, and they called “the young rabbis” to arrange a Jewish funeral.

Oh, they never told us about that.

We had some vague knowledge of what needs to be done. The funeral itself was the easiest part—saying the prayers, tearing the garments, making sure that 10 Jews are present and Kaddish can be said—but the preparation…that’s a different story. Doing the “tahara,” the traditional way of bathing and preparing the body for burial, was not something we knew much about.

We called the office of Chabad in Moscow and spoke to Rabbi Berl Lazar (eventually he became the chief rabbi of Russia). He faxed us (yes, it was during the prehistoric period) 18 pages of detailed instructions and explanations about the tahara. Another helpful Chabad Rabbi informed us that we better hurry up.

“Many local Jews are following the non-Jewish tradition of open-casket funeral,” he said. “If you show up at the family’s house after the deceased is dressed, most likely they won’t agree to have a tahara.”

Indeed, by the time we got to the house, it was too late. The viewing had begun with many family members and friends gathering around the coffin. I am ashamed to admit that I was a bit relieved. The idea of touching a dead body was rather terrifying to me. At the same time, I was also very sad. In those few hours since we were notified about the funeral, I managed to learn about the importance of the tahara, and the positive impact it has on the soul.

I felt bad we didn’t provide this Jewish soul with the gift of the tahara.

Years passed.

I was sitting in a rabbis’ meeting in Cherry Hill when someone mentioned that the local Chevra Kadisha, the volunteer group conducting the tahara and helping to prepare Jewish persons for burial, was facing a shortage of volunteers. The point was for us to look among our congregants for suitable candidates who will be ready to volunteer. But I found myself saying, “I will do it.” Those memories from Russia were still fresh in my mind, 12 years later.

After a quick training, I was added to the volunteers’ list. Soon enough I received the phone call to show up the following evening for a tahara.

I was excited. I was nervous. I was sure that I was going to experience nightmares for at least a couple of nights. I simply didn’t know what to expect.

But walking into the room, I realized that there was no fear in the atmosphere. There was something else I really didn’t expect to find: love. There we were, five people who had never met the deceased in his lifetime, but we all came to care for him, to help him down his last journey on this earth.

We cleaned him, poured the purifying water, dressed him carefully in shrouds and placed him in the pine casket.

One of the most emotional moments came just before we covered the coffin. We all gathered around him, standing silently for a moment before the older volunteer spoke. “Mr. ___, we want to ask your forgiveness. If we embarrassed you tonight or during your lifetime, please forgive us…Please be a good advocate for your family and for the entire Jewish people.”

And then we walked out.

We knew that tomorrow would be his funeral. People would speak about his life; friends and family would shed a tear. And although none of them will know who we are, we still feel part of his life. We were able to give him the same holy burial that has been done for thousands of years.

Many communities marked a recent Shabbat as TEAM Shabbat (Traditional End-of-Life Awareness Movement), and it saddens me to say how many Jews do not have the tahara and the Jewish burial. And I believe it’s simply because of lack of awareness. People might not be aware of the importance and the positive impact it has on the soul, of the great love and care that is invested in every moment of the process.

This is why I am sharing my story with you.

May Hashem bless us all with health and long life, and may we see the days when God “has concealed death forever, and the Lord God shall wipe the tears off every face.” Amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

Contact [email protected] if you have questions about the topic, or if you need any assistance with arranging a Jewish funeral. I and my fellow Chabad rabbis around the world are committed to ensuring that every Jewish person can have access to this special mitzvah.

By Rabbi Mendy Kaminker


Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi of Chabad of Hackensack and the editorial director of Chabad.org.

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