Growing Number of Jews Using NY’s First Reform Chevra Kadisha Burial Society

Sharon Shemesh, a member of New York’s Reform Chevra Kadisha burial society, prepares for a tahara to ritually cleanse the deceased’s body at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. (Photo credit: Plaza Jewish Community Chapel via

When members of the year-old Reform Communal Chevra Kadisha of New York complete their work preparing a Jewish body for burial, they take a few minutes to stand together around the closed coffin.

Traditionally, this is a moment when the members of a chevra kadisha ask for forgiveness from the person who has died for any inadvertent disrespect during pre-burial rituals, including washing the body (known as tahara) and dressing it in shrouds.

But the Reform chevra also adds its own ritual, created by Alissa Platcow, a founder of the new group and a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. Each member says their own Hebrew name and then the Hebrew name of the person who died — “a Kabbalistic tradition that forever ties each of us in that circle to the deceased for the rest of our lives,” Platcow said.

The ritual is fittingly new for a groundbreaking initiative: the first Reform Jewish chevra kadisha in New York.

Chevra kadishas — literally, “holy societies” — are groups of community volunteers that prepare Jewish bodies for burial. There are not many such groups outside Orthodox and traditional communities.

But some years ago rabbis at two prominent Reform congregations in New York began talking about creating one for their communities, and the initiative came together in a unique partnership led by Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, the nonprofit funeral chapel in Manhattan, along with Manhattan’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim, and seminarians at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion.

The idea was to give Reform Jews an opportunity to participate in and shape this sacred Jewish practice, and to generate more discussion of end-of-life issues.

“Creating community and supporting community is at the heart of everything we do,” said Stephanie Garry, executive vice president of communal partnerships at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, where the Reform burial society performs its rituals.

There are several reasons why having a Reform chevra kadisha that serves the entire progressive community is important, she said.

“The Reform community embraces its diversity, and honors it in a growing number of practices,” Garry said. “Our chevra kadisha is bringing sacred end-of-life awareness and ritual to Reform Jews, while mirroring and serving the full spectrum of the Reform community — including, for example, its trans members. It’s equally important to view the chevra kadisha as a new catalyst for critically needed end-of-life conversations in our personal and communal spaces.”

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Shaaray Tefila and Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Beth Elohim discussed the initiative extensively with their congregations, and several members joined the society launched in February 2023, including the rabbis themselves. Members of the society studied customs surrounding tahara with an eye toward creating some of their own.

For example, in the Reform society the entire team working on a body usually recites the liturgy used during a tahara, rather than the more common practice of a single person reciting the prayers. Platcow is also developing rituals to substitute for tahara customs in the event the chevra is asked to prepare a person for burial who is not Jewish.

To be inclusive of all gender identities, Platcow worked with a linguist to create a Hebrew word to be used to refer to a non-binary person who has died: “may-teh,” rather than “met” for a man or “metah” for a woman.

Sarit Wishnevski, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, an organization that educates, and trains chevra kadishas, says it’s important for liberal Jewish movements to have their own burial societies.

Chevra kadishas — literally, “holy societies” — are groups of community volunteers that prepare Jewish bodies for burial. Sharon Shemesh is a member of New York’s first Reform chevra kadisha. (Photo credit: Plaza Jewish Community Chapel via

“We don’t outsource other Jewish rituals, so caring for loved ones and neighbors in their final moment should be an integral part of our communities,” Wishnevski said, noting that Jewish burial rites are centuries-old but based on custom rather than strict Jewish law.

Mosbacher said the new chevra gives members of his community an opportunity to honor their community’s deceased themselves rather than relying on others.

“There were occasions before when members of my congregation asked about a tahara for someone who died, and the Orthodox community always served our members and I’m extremely grateful for that,” Mosbacher said. “But it’s also something that we as a progressive community should be able to provide. Having a chevra kadisha made up of Reform and progressive members signals to everyone that this is a chevra that is going to accept you no matter who you are. Everyone’s included.”

Mosbacher, Timoner and Platcow recently discussed the groundbreaking Reform chevra kadisha with Garry on an episode of “Exit Strategy,” the podcast by Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, hosted by Garry, that aims to elevate, normalize and demystify end-of-life issues from religious, cultural and social perspectives. [Listen now]

When a family member reaches out to request handling of the deceased by the Reform chevra kadisha, a group of four to seven people drawn from the 100 or so members of the chevra gather at Plaza’s chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to do the tahara. The society’s members come from the two anchor synagogues as well as from among students at HUC and at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

In its first year the chevra prepared about a dozen bodies for burial, and the number has been climbing significantly. Timoner has done two of them — one for an older woman from her own congregation.

“It was just incredibly profound,” Timoner said. “Here was this woman who had given so much of herself to the community, and by participating in the tahara I felt that I was honoring her.”

While tahara wasn’t generally talked about or requested often in her community before the Reform chevra was formed, both Timoner and Mosbacher educated community members about it in the lead-up to the chevra’s creation. The discussions helped spark growing interest in Jewish ritual burial and other end-of-life issues. Amplifying the importance of end-of-life conversations is part of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel’s nonprofit mission.

Some of the interest in the Reform chevra probably was the result of the many deaths that occurred in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic and “a sense of wanting to meaningfully engage with community,” Timoner said — and part of growing interest among many progressive Jews in engaging in Jewish ritual.

Jewish tradition offers guidelines on everything from how to accompany a body from time of death until burial to what mourners shouldn’t eat during the interim period before a deceased is interred (no meat or wine).

“At the end of life, Jews provide not just a framework but a compass,” Garry said.

In the Jewish vernacular, caring for the dead is called chesed shel emet (“true kindness”) because bestowing honor upon the dead is a favor that cannot be returned by the beneficiary.

Mosbacher says that’s one of the most powerful spiritual elements of serving on the chevra kadisha.

“We feel so privileged to participate in bringing dignity to the deceased and comfort to the surviving family,” Mosbacher said. “I know it will continue to grow and expand in its meaning within our communities and hopefully also open up for people important conversations about death and the way that Jewish rituals can support families and loved ones all the way through.”


This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Plaza Jewish Community Chapela nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that every member of the Jewish Community receives a dignified and respectful Jewish funeral. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

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