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After tweaking rituals during pandemic, a US Jewish burial society makes amends

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PITTSBURGH (Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA) — Tahara, the act of washing and purifying the deceased, is paramount to Jewish burial. So when the coronavirus pandemic descended on the United States in March 2020, members of a Pittsburgh-based Jewish burial society devoted to the practice made a difficult decision.

Given fears of COVID-19 transmission, members of the New Community Chevra Kadisha stopped traveling to funeral homes and performing the sacred act of tahara in person. Instead of physically washing and purifying a body prior to burial, members gathered on Zoom for what they called a “spiritual tahara,” a virtual service of readings, song and prayer, with men tending to men and women to women.

Between March 15, 2020, and June 21, 2021 — when the group resumed in-person practices — chevra kadisha (ritual burial society) members completed more than 100 spiritual taharas. During this time, many other Jewish burial societies across the country were similarly figuring out how to perform their sacred rituals safely.

But while the group was satisfied by its approximation of the traditional ritual during a time of crisis, something nagged at its members. Jewish burial is often called chessed shel emet, the true kindness: Washing a body, purifying it and placing shrouds on the deceased is performed by the living with no ability for repayment.

When those acts of kindness are completed “in some diminished way, it feels like you’re cheating somebody out of something,” said Dr. Jonathan Weinkle, a Pittsburgh physician and longtime chevra kadisha member.

So on October 3, 21 members of the burial society traveled to Beth Shalom Cemetery, located just outside Pittsburgh, to make amends. Standing side by side,........

© The Times of Israel

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