Bev Gelbart and Sue Morgan, devoted volunteers for the Progressive Chevra Kadisha Victoria, shared the following article on the work of this important and inspiring group.
At this time of the year through the Days of Awe and Chagim, we reflect on the cyclical nature of the year, the seasons of our lives. We particularly remember family members or friends who have died during the year as well as those who have passed on in years gone by. Within our Progressive Jewish community in Melbourne we are blessed with a close-knit team of men and women who volunteer for the mitzvah of performing Tahara throughout the year for recently deceased Jewish men and women requiring funeral services by Bet Olam. The name of this group of volunteers is the Progressive Chevra Kadisha Victoria. As a group we are going into our fifth year of this extraordinary Mitzvah.
Tahara is the ritual washing, drying and dressing (in special white garments) of the deceased, so that they may be restored to spiritual purity. We follow the tradition of women attending to women, men attending to men. This is our Jewish equivalent of “Secret Men’s and Secret Women’s Business” Every team performing Tahara has highly experienced team leaders and all volunteers receive free training. On-going support for all volunteers is built into the program.
Tahara is an act of kindness which provides our volunteers with a deep sense of belonging within our community and enables us to continue to carry out our meaningful traditions. Blessings and Psalms are read during the Tahara and our volunteers are humbled to know that this will be the last time human hands will administer to the deceased as they are prepared for their last journey. People are often surprised at the sense of serenity and meditative peace even in this encounter with death. The first time I was in a team attending to someone that I knew, I worried how it would feel. In fact it was uplifting. She looked relaxed and at peace. Though elderly, her wrinkles were gone!
As we are coming to the end of the cycle of Torah readings, we hear about the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34) You may know that it was God who buried him in an unmarked place. From this we learn that preparing and burying the dead are both highly important and also highly private matters. In our Tahara practice the observance of confidentiality is treated with utmost respect.
Our Progressive Chevra Kadisha Victoria has volunteers from each of the 4 Victorian Progressive Congregations. We work in conjunction with Bet Olam Jewish Funeral Service and the secular funeral company which has provided appropriate washing and clothing for burial and cremation of our members for many years. We have developed protocols, requirements for volunteers, a support process and a booklet of readings and procedures. There are several Tahara programs across Australia and we were particularly grateful to Adelaide’s Beit Shalom and our own Rabbis for support in setting up our program.
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