They perform one of the most important functions a community member can, maintaining a tradition stretching back to the Second Temple era. But for the approximately 80 members of Milwaukee’s Jewish Burial Society or Chevra Kadisha, notoriety is not a priority.
“We’re not secretive, we’re just low-profile,” said Alan Borsuk, the organization’s current president.
Chevrai Kadisha are responsible for performing the ritual of taharah. In addition to ritually washing and dressing a body for burial, taharah also involves reciting a set of prayers asking God for forgiveness on behalf of the deceased.
“It’s considered a Hesed Shel Emes, a true kindness,” Borsuk said, “because the person can’t thank you. So you’re doing it strictly as a kindness and not expecting anything in return.”
Rhonda Schutkin has been a member of the Chevra Kadisha since 1979.
“My health is good, someone needs to say ‘yes,’ and at this point I can say yes,” she said. “It’s never like it’s rote and you can do it with your eyes closed. Every time you do it, it is like doing it for the first time, and it is a whole team approach.”
For Borsuk, who had to stop doing taharas several years ago because of back issues, the experience was an uplifting one.
“I almost always left taharas not feeling down, but elevated and feeling like I’d done something the way it ought to be done,” he said. “It was so respectful and so conditional in terms of centuries of Jewish practice of the first order.”
Serving as the group’s president, he said, gives him the ability to remain involved and “try and help in other ways.”
Among those is helping raise awareness of the Chevra Kadisha and its role in the community. As president, it’s Borsuk’s job to make sure that things are running smoothly. That includes ensuring its financial stability.
“We do have some expenses, and we pay the coordinators a modest amount,” he said. Those who volunteer to be part of the Chevra Kadisha do so on a volunteer basis. About 15 or 20 years ago the decision was made to offer a small honorarium to people who do taharah.
“(It) is more appreciation than pay, and they can either be paid or can designate a non-profit, in many cases schools or other Jewish organizations, shuls or the Jewish food pantry, to receive their stipend,” Borsuk said, adding that “leaving it with the Chevra Kadisha is my favorite.”
Donations by families and the amount the Chevra charges a funeral home – the amount of the volunteer honoraria – are the main funding sources. But Borsuk said that if the treasury begins to look as if it needs a boost, “usually I can solve that with a few phone calls, because it’s a cause people are responsive to.”
In its current incarnation, Milwaukee’s Chevra Kadisha dates to the late 1970s. Burial societies as an institution are millennia older.
“You can find sources going back to Talmudic times that would say the Chevra Kadisha is one of the most central functions any Jewish community needs to have,” Borsuk said.
The Talmud’s first reference to a burial society is the story of Rav Hamnuna, a fourth-century Babylonian sage. He arrived in Darumata (likely somewhere in modern-day Iraq) where someone had recently died. Observing the town’s residents going about their normal business, he was angered, thinking that the community was ignoring the requirement to stop working until the dead person was buried.
When someone informed him about the sacred society whose task was to care for the dead, Rav Hamnuna allowed that work by others was permissible.
Different sources cite different dates for the formation of modern Chevrai Kadisha. In 1564, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi of Prague is the first signator on the constitution of that community’s Chevra Kadisha, thought to be the model for those forming subsequently throughout Europe and, eventually the New World.
Milwaukee’s first Jewish families arrived here in 1842. Although records don’t exist, it’s probable that by 1859, when land for a cemetery was purchased, there was at least one functioning burial society. Local synagogues maintained their own burial societies, an arrangement that worked well until the mid-1970s.
At that point, Borsuk said, it became apparent that the system was no longer functioning. Things weren’t being done as consistently, in part because members were aging out and no one was replacing them. The result was a push to create a community-wide Chevra Kadisha.
“Rabbi (Michel) Twerski, I think, took the lead in convening people of all religious stripes,” he said. The response was positive, he said, and the group was launched.
“It included, from the start, people of every religious stripe,” Borsuk said, “and we’ve managed to keep it going for more than 40 years in its current form.”
Borsuk became involved in 1982, after attending a meeting called by Rabbi Twerski.
“He gave a pitch, along with a couple of other people, for why this was so important, why it was so special and that it was really a good thing to do,” he said. “There were 20 people there that night, and about 12 of us got involved.”
Bureaucratically speaking, the group’s structure is loose, and organizationally minimal.
In addition to Borsuk, there are two coordinators, Ilana Kastel and David Perlman. Men perform taharah on men; women perform taharah on women. Funeral directors call Kastel or Perlman when the need arises, depending on the gender of the deceased. The coordinators, in turn, call individual members until they have assembled the three or four needed.
“The men get a text message and whoever responds first does the taharah,” Schutkin said. “Ilana always calls. She’s calls and calls until she gets through to enough women to come.”
Schutkin’s husband recently joined the Chevra Kadisha. In contrast to the women, she said, the men have organized into teams.
“He knows exactly who he’s going with,” she said. “I never know who’s going to be there, because we’re all saying yes on our own terms, we don’t have teams.”
At one point, Schutkin said, she suggested that members sign up for specific days, something Borsuk said works better in a community like New York. There, he said, it’s a guarantee that there’s a need for multiple taharot on a daily basis. Milwaukee’s Chevra Kadisha performs approximately 100 taharot a year for each gender.
That, he said, represents about 80 percent of Jewish deaths, a high percentage given that far fewer than 80 percent of Milwaukee’s Jewish community is affiliated with a traditional synagogue.
“The reason,” Borsuk said, “is that we have eight Jewish cemeteries in Milwaukee and six require taharah to be done and that requirement goes back a couple of generations in most cases, so people who wouldn’t ask for it themselves are told they need to do this traditional preparation for burial.”
The ritual is performed at the funeral home, generally the one serving the family. Some funeral homes have facilities where the ritual can be performed, others don’t. Members also travel outside Milwaukee when necessary.
“We just did one a couple of weeks ago in Sheboygan,” Borsuk said, “And we did one in Kenosha recently. We try to be helpful where we can.”
Borsuk said the time commitment for a Milwaukee-based taharah is approximately two hours, including travel time.
Schutkin, a nurse who worked at then-Mount Sinai Hospital’s newborn nursery when she joined the Chevra Kadisha, now owns a home health care agency. She has performed taharah for some of her hospice clients, and for the family members of friends.
“I’ve actually had people request me, people who know that I do taharas,” she said, adding that when she’s been called at random and realizes she knows someone in the family, “if I know it would bring them comfort, I tell them I was there to tuck them in and say their last goodbye.”
The personal connection, whether or not she knew the person in life, is why Schutkin continues to perform this most intimate of Jewish rituals.
“The biggest reason I do this,” she said, “is that this will never be an automation. This is always going to be a human process. Chevra Kadisha is always going to require human beings to do taharah.”
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How to join
If you are interested in joining Chevra Kadisha, contact Alan Borsuk at 414-232-7430.