Monday, August 23, 2010

Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Experience

By Susan Esther Barnes

Below is Part One of a two-part post about a seminar I attended. I'm posting it in two parts since each post looks at the seminar from a different perspective. This one is about the experience and the second one is about the knowledge I gained.


On Sunday afternoon I attended a Chevra Kadisha (generally translated as “holy society”) seminar. It was an introductory lecture on taharah, the Jewish method of ritually washing dead people to prepare them for burial. It was an uncomfortable experience for me, in more ways than one.

When I arrived, I walked into a large room set up with tables and chairs. On the far side of the room were two women and a man seated at one of the tables. I walked over to them to confirm I was in the right place for the seminar. They invited me to have a seat.

More people came in, and they naturally gravitated to our table. In time, there were eleven of us gathered there, chatting amiably. That’s when the man who’d been there from the start said, “It looks like we might get enough for a minyan. If we do, we can daven.” (“Daven” means to say Jewish liturgical prayers, some of which require a “minyan” of ten Jews to say).

From my perspective, we already had a minyan, because there were at least ten Jewish people present. But by his statement this man was declaring he only counts men in a minyan. Without giving it a second thought, this man was telling me, and the other women at the table, that we don’t count. None of us said anything, but I think he picked up the change in body language from some of us, because a short time later he said some things such as he knew some of us were “liberated women.”

The point is, because of this comment, before the seminar even started, I felt uncomfortable. Since taharah is not common among Reform Jews, I started to think, “As I do this am I going to run into a lot of similar situations in which I feel like I’m being put down in some way because my customs are different?”

Aside from the cultural concerns that arose immediately before the seminar, my main source of discomfort during the seminar was caused by the talk of things like blood and mucus and oozing. My husband would probably think it serves me right, because whenever I have a cold or some other malady I want to describe it to him in great detail, and he does not want to hear a bit of it.

The fact is, I needed to hear about the blood and the mucus and the oozing. I still need to hear a lot more about it. This is because my biggest fear about trying to do taharah is there’s a very real possibility that when I see the blood or the mucus or the oozing, I might need to sit down and put my head between my knees in order to prevent myself from passing out. I say this based on past experience.

Frankly, it’s mostly the blood I’m worried about. The good news is, the woman sitting next to me said she’s been doing this for about ten years and so far she hasn’t encountered anyone who has had a violent death. So she hasn’t seen a lot of blood or similar unpleasantness.

Nevertheless, it’s clear I’m not going to be able to do taharah unless I can somehow desensitize myself to some extent to my natural reaction to blood. It’s going to be a bit hard to ritually wash someone while I have my head between my knees. The best way I know to desensitize myself, as with any irrational fear, is to approach it close enough to get uncomfortable, back away, talk about it, calm down, and then repeat the process as often as necessary. This seminar was one step in this process.

So although the content of the seminar may have been things I could have read in a book, my attendance at the seminar provided me with two important experiences: The realization that I need to prepare myself for encounters with people who observe different Jewish customs than I do, and a chance to approach my fears about blood. Not a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, but certainly one that was worthwhile.


  1. susan, i love the way that you weave your learnings, how they may both feel uncomfortable and how facing both is necessary. for the record, "the blood, mucus and oozing?" yuck, yuck and yuck! :)

  2. Thanks. I agree with "yuck, yuck and yuck." However, I promised myself several years ago that I would no longer allow my life to be run by fear, so when I'm afraid of something (other than something likely to do physical damage to me or others), I try to walk toward it.

    I am grateful to have the support of "real life" friends as well as online friends like you as I walk this path.