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Jewish Funerals in the Time of Corona

By Stacey Dresner

It takes one look at the additional pages of obituaries in newspapers today to see the deadly affect of Covid-19.

Richard Perlman, Jewish funeral director at Miles Funeral Home in Holden says that in the past few weeks, nearly all of the people they have laid to rest have died from Covid-19 or related complications.

“It’s a goodly number of people,” he said, “and many more deaths than we ordinarily experience.” 

In Springfield, Ryan Ascher of Ascher-Zimmerman Funeral Home says the same thing.

“Normally we average between 8 and 10 deaths per month. We are now averaging about 25 per month. So our business has tripled,” he said. “They tell us not everyone dies from Covid; there are people who are Covid positive and people that are Covid probable. Three-quarters of our people are either Covid positive or probable.”

Local Jewish funeral directors are not only dealing with the increase in casualties during the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been forced to alter the way they conduct Jewish funerals.

Due to social distancing, the public cannot enter funeral homes; funeral arrangements are now being made over the phone or online.

Funeral home directors and staff are wearing practically as much protective gear as those on the frontline – masks, face shields, gloves, paper coveralls, and paper booties over shoes.

And Governor Charlie Baker has ordered that during the Covid crisis all funerals in Massachusetts be held privately and at the graveside.

“You do not have any choice, because the idea is to protect three different parties — to protect the gravediggers from the public; to protect the families from the gravediggers; and to protect the funeral director from both of them,” Perlman said.

Perlman said that limiting the number of people at the graveside to 10 is probably the most difficult thing for families to deal with.

“People have not liked the idea of limiting it to nine plus the clergy,” he said, explaining that funeral directors and their staff are not counted in the 10.

“We get there early to place the casket and then we all step back.”

“It’s difficult,” agreed Ascher. “The governor started off saying he wanted 10 people-max as a grouping, so what we started doing is saying, ‘You can have 10 people at the cemetery, don’t include us, we will stand far enough away so you can have your 10. And one family followed that. Most of them bring 15 or 20.”

The ritual of shoveling earth onto the casket once it has been set into the grave can still be done, with one caveat in Worcester.

“If you want to shovel earth, you must bring your own shovel,” Perlman said. “If there’s five of you, you have to bring five shovels. There’s no passing of shovels allowed. That is in all the cemeteries in Boston and now the Jewish cemeteries in Worcester. Most of the rabbis have encouraged just placing a handful of earth, but they are not going to prohibit anyone from shoveling as much as they wish as long as they bring their own shovel and do not pass the shovel.”

As soon as the shoveling of earth is over, all family members, clergy members and funeral directors in both Central and Western Mass. must leave the cemetery and get back into their cars, after which the entire grave is filled with earth by cemetery staff.

And some families have not been able to travel home in time for their loved ones’ funerals or have decided to be cautious and stay quarantined in their homes.

“That’s the most terrible thing, that, families are spread out all over the country, all over the world, and because of travel restrictions quite a number of families could not have their family at the funeral,” Perlman said. “People are afraid to get on airplanes. So a fair amount of families probably will have a large unveiling service or a memorial service in the future when things calm down.”


Pikuach Nefesh

Ascher said that in late March-early April when it was evident that changes were going to have to be made in light of the pandemic, Rabbi Amy Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield forwarded to Ascher-Zimmerman a letter from the New York Board of Rabbis.

“No words can express the depth of pain felt by our grieving families during this unprecedented period. We as rabbis seek to bring them the spiritual strength and support they so deeply need. Its hurts us to see mourners denied the comforts that ritual proximity affords. But we must recognize that the principle of pikuach nefesh requires us to make exceptions to our time-honored funeral practices in order to protect human life, health, and safety. Clergy and community must find alternate ways to show comfort and condolence in these times.”

In terms of adjusting Jewish burial rituals, “There’s not much more they can cut out,” Ascher said. “At this point there is no technical shomer — nobody in the building sitting shomer, because we don’t want to bring foreign people into the safe area. That is because there are three of us here and if one of us gets it, we are shut down for two weeks [on quarantine]. So we are being strict here.”

The ritual of tahara has also been affected.

“They have cut it down, so basically there is no water and washing part. We from the funeral home physically lay the shroud on top if the person [who is] inside two pouches…Once the pouch is sealed, the CDC says ‘Do not open those pouches for anyone.’ So we don’t. Somebody from the chevra comes and reads the prayers outside of our building in view of the person they are reading for.”

“We’re doing whatever we can to make sure everybody is safe,” said Rabbi Yakov Wolff of Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow. “Personally. I am going to the cemetery for the funerals and it’s difficult and challenging but we are making it as meaningful as possible for the families in this difficult time that they are going through. I’ve officiated at funerals where you would think everybody was there because the families are zooming in. Everything is being done with the greatest respect for the deceased and honor to the family.”

To be buried in the three Jewish cemeteries in Worcester the deceased must have had a full tahara.

“There is an edict from the Orthodox rabbis in New York that the people who are performing tahara cannot be 60 years old or over. And so, that eliminates nearly everyone in Worcester,” Perlman said. 

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Rabbi Mendel Fogelman of Central Mass. Chabad had contacted the rabbis in New York for guidance.

“I asked them what would happen if we are approached with someone passing from corona, how do we handle taharas, what is the jewish law for this, etc., so they told me we will do it the same way we always have, but with extra protection” the paper overalls, masks, face shield and gloves.

“At the same time I was very concerned for our own people who are performing taharas,” Rabbi Fogelman said. 

He contacted the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston for advice.

“We worked out a plan where when someone passes away in Worcester, we arrange the tahara to be done in Boston. So Miles Funeral Home drives the deceased to Boston, they perform the tahara and then they are brought back to Miles who will then do the funeral.”

Rabbi Fogelman said that he called to relay this information to the members of the Worcester chevrah kadisha. 

“I called one of the women and I was apologizing, but she thanked me. She said she was sitting there, worried about what she would say when she got that call. She was really appreciative.”

“Worcester has the tradition that the cemeteries do not allow anyone to be buried without a tahara,” Rabbi Fogelman added. “It’s a really wonderful tradition and I’m happy we are able to do that.”


A Jewish burial association seeks prayershawls for burials, and donations pour in

By Hira Hana

(JTA) – Andrew Parver’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since a week ago Sunday.

Donated prayer shawls left on Andrew Parver’s doorstep.

That’s when Parver, the director of operations at the Hebrew Free Burial Association in New York City, put out a call for donations of prayer shawls for traditional Jewish burials. Less than 48 hours later, he had collected 150 himself and pledges of hundreds more to come from as far away as South Florida and Pittsburgh.

“My phone yesterday was nonstop – phone calls, emails, WhatsApps,” Parver told JTA on Tuesday, April 26. “I know rabbis have been sending this out to their congregations and I don’t even know the rabbis.”

The Hebrew Free Burial Association performs free Jewish burials for any Jew who dies without the funds for funeral expenses. Usually it has enough prayer shawls on hand to last for months. But the coronavirus pandemic has caused an unprecedented spike in demand for its services, and the group quickly ran out of shawls.

“We basically exhausted our supplies and our reserves,” Parver said. “We’ve never had anything like this.”

So on Sunday, Parver send out the word on an email list for the Jewish community in Teaneck, New Jersey. The next morning he posted an appeal on Facebook.

“Do you have any old Talleisim, regardless of condition, that you can donate to Hebrew Free Burial Association?” he wrote on the association’s Facebook page, using the Hebrew word for prayer shawls.

The donations started pouring in immediately.

By Sunday night, Parver had picked up about 100 shawls from homes in his area and found another 50 left on the doorstep of his home. Another 10 people volunteered their homes in New York, New Jersey and Baltimore as drop-off points for donations, thus far collecting at least 200 prayer shawls. With over 350 shawls collected already, Parver isn’t quite sure how many more to expect. But with calls from across the country continuing to come in, he’s sure there are more on the way. He’s also sure the need will continue to grow.

Hundreds of prayer shawls have been donated to the Hebrew Free Burial Association since Sunday. COURTESY OF ANDREW PARVER

Traditional Jewish burial customs dictate that men are dressed in white shrouds and wrapped in a shawl before they are interred in a Jewish cemetery. The association does not dress women in prayer shawls, in line with Orthodox custom.

“For thousands of years, Jews have been buried the same way – plain shrouds, plain pine box,” Parver said, adding that it’s a way of “connecting to our ancestors.”

The association typically receives donations of shawls at a steady pace year round. They come from synagogues that close down or people who buy new ones after an older shawl wears out. Sometimes they come from people who find old shawls that belonged to parents or grandparents.

“Each tallis tells a story,” Parver said. “Somebody wore that tallis in shul, somebody shed tears while wearing that tallis, praying for something that was important at that stage of life.”

Some of the calls he’s received have hinted at the emotional connection people feel to their shawls. One rabbi told Parver that he had held on to an old shawl for years because of its sentimental value, but was prepared to let it go after hearing about the need.

Parver sees the outpouring of donations as another way people are helping where they can at a time when leaving the house is a dangerous proposition.

“This is just a very tangible method for people to connect and give back more good into the world when we need it,” he said.

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