When Jewish funeral homes in greater Washington announced in March that they were limiting entry to essential personnel, those barred included not only family and friends of the deceased but also members of local burial societies, known as chevra kadisha.
Chevra kadisha means “holy group” in Aramaic, and the volunteer-based societies carry out the ritual preparation of the Jewish dead for burial. The process is called taharah, purification.
The decision to cease taharahs at their facilities was not made lightly, according to Albert Bloomfield, managing partner of Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care in Rockville.
“If a staff member becomes exposed to the virus, our staff must self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days and Sagel Bloomfield and Shomrei Neshama’s ability to serve the community becomes significantly diminished, if not entirely disabled,” said an April 7 email from Sagel Bloomfield management to local rabbis and cantors. Shomrei Neshama is an Orthodox funeral home owned by Bloomfield and Edward Sagel. “As you well know, Jewish law says the ultimate concern is to take care of the living, and this will guide us.”
“I had been on conference calls and emails with colleagues from around the country who were making the same decision,” said Bloomfield in a phone interview. “We felt that we held out as long as we could.”
But when the number of COVID-19 cases in the local Jewish community started
increasing, it was necessary to limit the number of people entering the facilities. This was both for the safety of the volunteers and the safety of the funeral home
employees, he added.
“We’re not allowing anybody in — not family, not [chevra kadisha], not anyone,” said Joyce Torchinsky, owner and director of Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home.
Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring is the only funeral home in the Washington area allowing taharahs to be performed.
“During these unprecedented times, we feel it is important to maintain as many rites and rituals for the families that we serve,” said Neva FinGado, general manager of Hines-Rinaldi, which offers Jewish funerals under an arrangement with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
“We have worked with the Jewish community for over 18 years, and we feel it is important, no matter what religion people belong to, to be there and help the communities we serve,” said FinGado.
‘We look like we’re going in for surgery’
Taharah traditionally includes ritual washing, dressing the body in a shroud and
wrapping it in a tallit before the coffin is closed, all while reciting specific verses and prayers for the dead.
Devorah Grayson is one of the leaders of the women’s division of Chevra Kadisha of Greater Washington, an Orthodox group that operates under guidance of the Rabbinical
Council of Greater Washington. She likened the cleansing and care of the person’s body before burial to treating a valued gift with respect. “We can’t just throw the gift away,” she said.
Her husband, Dean Grayson, is president of the men’s division. The Chevra Kadisha of Greater Washington charges $100 for a taharah, but the Graysons, like everyone in the group, are volunteers: His day job is working as a lawyer for defense contractor Northrup Grumman, and she is a stay at home mom with a professional background in product development for the health care and food industries.
Before making the case to the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington for how their chevra kadisha could still safely operate during the pandemic, Devorah Grayson said she consulted colleagues across the country, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a physician from the National Institutes of Health and two rabbis with expertise in medical ethics.
In addition to identifying best practices to avoid exposure to the virus from the deceased or other volunteers, they also had to address whether it was appropriate to expend personal protective equipment (PPE) on caring for the dead when it was needed to care for the living.
“When this first broke out, Dean and I foresaw there might be a shortage. We placed a large order through a health care company and on Amazon, and it never came,” Devorah Grayson said.
The funeral home provides a certain amount of PPE, but she said Jewish community organization Project Ezra in Baltimore has been “a lifesaver to us, literally,” donating face masks, face shields and gowns.
“We look like we’re going in for surgery: two layers of gowns, gloves, face masks, booties,” said volunteer Craig Simon. Even with the protective gear in use, volunteers are instructed to leave their shoes outside and get undressed when they get home — “A physician taught us how to do it to prevent cross-contamination,” he said — and immediately wash their clothes.
Precautions during the taharah process include covering the bag the body arrives in with a bleach-soaked sheet before even opening it.
“When we open up the bag there are potentially fumes that contain the virus,” said Dean Grayson. A COVID expert at the National Institutes of Health advised allowing the bag to aerate for several minutes under the sheet, he said.
They also wash the body using a mix of bleach and water.
At the outset of the pandemic, “the idea that I could be asking people to do something that could put their lives in danger was terrifying to me. That was my knee jerk reaction,” said Devorah Grayson, who began performing taharahs when she was a high school senior.
“Every time we send a team out, I have less and less fear and greater confidence in our process and PPE.”
With many from their own roster of volunteers opting out during the pandemic, the women’s division still has a bench of more than 100 volunteers to call up for action. The men’s division, smaller to begin with, has seven volunteers willing to take care of confirmed or potential COVID-19 cases. These days, that could be almost anyone.
One member of this special-ops crew is Simon. “Knowing that there is a limited number of people able to do this mitzvah is very special. Doing it is exhausting,” he said. “Very meaningful, special, but no less exhausting.”
Everyone treated as COVID-19 positive
At Sagel Bloomfield, 25 to 30 percent of funerals have details prearranged by patrons. In the case of Jewish clientele, which accounts for 95 percent of their business, this includes whether the deceased will have a taharah.
Bloomfield said that when people make arrangements now, they are told that taharah is not available. “We make them aware of this on the initial call. We’re certainly not looking to bring someone into our care without the family knowing up front,” he said.
“We had cases in the beginning [of the pandemic] that we were told were not COVID positive and they in fact were, so we have to treat everybody as if they’re positive,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the day when we can resume traditions that have been am important part of our business and our industry for a long time.”
“We feel, unfortunately, the peak [of COVID cases] may not have hit this area yet and opening now would be irresponsible.”