Reconnecting with faith through washing of dead

Rabbi Alan LaPayover plays the deceased person (in foreground) as Rabbi Linda Holtzman (top facing camera) teaches during the workshop at Calvary Center for Culture and Community in Phila. on Feb. 28, 2016.

The first time, Rabbi Sarra Lev thought she'd be afraid.

The young man who had asked her to teach him Hebrew before he died was laid out on a table in a funeral home, and she and six others were there to wash his body.

"It helped a lot that it was somebody I loved," said Lev, of West Mount Airy. "I thought of it as just taking care of him. It was Randy lying there."

Lev was performing a sacred purification rite of Judaism and other faith traditions, the cleansing of a body shortly after death. Since that first experience in the early 1990s, she estimates, she has taken part in 17 ritual washings, called taharah in Judaism.

She recently joined Rabbis Linda Holtzman and Alan LaPayover to teach the liturgy to two dozen potential practitioners for the Reconstructionist Hevrah Kaddishah of Philadelphia, a type of sacred burial society known as a chevra kadisha. Summoned by funeral directors, the volunteers gather quickly, usually in the evenings, to perform the ritual washing and purification, and dress the body in linen shrouds.

The taharah (Hebrew for purification) is being embraced by increasing numbers of Jews, many of them baby boomers who want to embrace their religious heritage.

"If people are looking for something communal and spiritual and don't want to turn something over to professionals, this ritual is waiting for them," said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v'Nichum ("Honor and Comfort"), which helps organize chevra kadisha groups.

The hour-long ceremony is the highest mitzvah, or good deed, that can be performed in Judaism, because the act is done for someone who cannot pay it back. The washing is a way to restore the body to the pure state of birth.

"I am going to turn 40 soon, and I'm getting to that age when I realize death is coming for all of us," said Karey Bacon, a nursing student from Mount Airy who attended the workshop. The body "is the vessel that held someone's spirit, and you don't just discard that once the spirit has gone."

William and Marcia Heine of the Chevra Kadisha of Cherry Hill helped revitalize the ritual in their South Jersey community after the older men and women who had been performing it began to die off in the 1970s. Local funeral directors had started transporting bodies to their Philadelphia counterparts for the rite.

"We went to talk to the rabbi, and he was a little skeptical," said William Heine, who attends Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi thought the washing ritual would give people "the willies."

However, when Heine and others called a meeting around Labor Day in 1977, 75 people showed up.

The ritual also is performed in other faith traditions, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Muslims associate washing with ritual acts such as prayer, and mark life's major moments - childbirth, for instance - by washing the entire body, said Jamal J. Elias, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

After death, Muslim family members often participate in the washing and dressing ritual.

"If an elderly woman dies," Elias said, "a daughter might be asked to hold a pitcher of water and pour when told to pour."

In Hindu teaching, the water should be in part from the Ganges River, said Suhag A. Shukla of Haverford, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington.

Water is considered sacred in the Hindu faith, but especially water from the Ganges, believed to be the embodiment of the goddess Ganga. The river flows from the Himalayas at the border between India and China and through to Bangladesh, but bottles can be purchased online.

Purification in the Won Buddhism tradition consists of wiping the body with a damp cloth. Old energy is sealed by covering up the mouth, ears, and eyes, and other body openings with cotton balls.

"This body is completed and now you are departing for the new body or rebirth," said Bokin Kim, president of Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside.

At the chevra kadisha workshop, Rabbis Holtzman, Lev, and LaPayover demonstrated the ritual at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community in West Philadelphia, the home of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue. LaPayover lay on the table in the position of the deceased.

"Guide our hands and hearts as we do this work . . . enable us to lovingly fulfill this commandment," said Holtzman, a rabbinic formation specialist at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. "Help us to see your face in the face of the deceased."

In a real taharah, typically five participants then put on non-latex gloves and smocks. In a funeral home, the ritual usually is performed on a table with pitchers of water, but the Joseph Levine & Sons funeral home branch in Trevose, Bucks County, has a mikvah, a small pool used for the ritual purification.

Dirt on the body is removed with disposable cotton towels. Toothpicks are used to scrape debris from under fingernails. The head and body are doused with water, while a sheet is held in a canopy over the deceased. The body is dried and dressed in white linen clothing, which will disintegrate with the remains. The eyes and mouth are covered with pieces of clay pottery to symbolize that the person will no longer see or speak.

Dirt from Israel is sprinkled on the body, which the group then lifts into a wooden casket.

"It feels like the most spiritual thing that I do," Holtzman said. "There is something about helping somebody through that connection between life and death. . . . I'm honoring people who have died in a good way."

kholmes@phillynews.com

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