This week (Sunday through Wednesday), I am attending a conference for those of us involved with the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Societies) and Jewish funerals. The conference is held every year by an organization called Kavod V’Nichum. Nineteen years ago I was in a kitchen in Columbia, Maryland with the executive director of KVN, David Zinner, and with Rena Boroditsky from the Chesed Shel Emes Winnipeg, as we planned out the programme for our very first conference.
These conferences have now been held every year since, but this is the first conference on Zoom. I was surprised yesterday at the depth of learning, the efficiency of the technology and the engagement that Zoom allowed us, as we entered our various workshops, plenaries and poster sessions. It has been a remarkable – and yes, somewhat exhausting, experience. What I miss are those spontaneous chats in the hallways, and in the lunchrooms, just as I miss our own chance conversations in the JCC.
One of the sessions I attended yesterday was led by a woman named Nicky Silver. Nicky has been working with Chevra Kadisha groups for 40+ years. Her presentation was remarkable. And my takeaway from her session is something I am hoping to help organize here in Victoria. Nicky talked about how we have a number of organizational structures to respond to death in our communities: we have a Chevra Kadisha; we have people organized to sit shomer (to sit with the deceased prior to burial); we have people to prepare food for the mourners; and we sit shiva. What many of us don’t have, and tend to leave to the rabbi, is what Nicky called a Bereavement Chevra.
This Chevra would include a group of people who would be committed to staying in touch with the mourner for that most difficult first year. They would call, send notes and just generally check in – especially after all the intensity of people coming for shiva have left. I think this is such an important continuation of the work that we do in our Jewish community here, and look forward to working with our other Jewish communities here to see if we can establish such a Bereavement Chevra. One of the groups at the conference has such a group – they call it Hineinu – We Are Here. We are here for the dead and for the living.
In this week’s Torah reading, Baha’alotecha, we are also called to “Be Here Now” (with apologies to Baba Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert!). We open up this week to instructions about lighting the Menorah – simple instructions – just a few verses. God too asks us to fully be present and inhabit each moment. When we light our Shabbat candles, let ourselves be bathed in the warmth and light of their flame, knowing we too are a wick, a flame of potential. We too can cast our light towards our centre, as the menorah is lit from each of the flames – reflecting light from out towards the centre, from the centre back out. And then as Shabbat infuses us, we cast our light beyond, into the world around us, into the physical and spiritual spaces we all inhabit. We can each be a flame for each other. Hineinu.