Other letters to The Forward

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Other letters to The Forward Michael Slater 6/23/13 8:10 PM
Hello All--

Rabbi Wasserman and his attorney, Efrem Grail, also wrote letters to the editor of the Forward.  They have given permission for me to reprint their words here.

From Rabbi Wasserman:
In the article by Josh Nathan-Kazis about Kavod V'Nichum's annual Chevra Kadisha conference there were a number of points reported  that I would call imprecise. For example: I was a presenter at the conference, not an attendee; we accomplish refrigeration of a deceased body, when necessary, with frozen cold-packs, not with ice (if the funeral is within 24 hours of death there is no need for refrigeration and no regulation that requires refrigeration). [NOTE: They have since corrected this point in the article on the website]

But to characterize the conference as a group of radicals seeking to wrest control from the industry is completely inaccurate. This conference is an annual event to support and educate, to train and allow for the sharing of experiences - indeed to celebrate together a common cause and mitzvah - the chessed (kindness) afforded to members of the community who can no longer help themselves, performed by the children of our father Abraham whose hearts beat with his rhythm of living a life of kind acts and deeds, even, and especially, when those acts are inconvenient and difficult. Those Chevra Kadisha members operate and do the Tahara (ritual wash) irrespective of whether it is within the context of the funeral industry or solely in a community context. As noted in the article, I do not see eye to eye, on a number of issues, with the primarily Conservative and Reform focus (due to the demographics of the members) of the conference and the organization. But I accepted the invitation to speak at the conference because I was drawn to the spirit of chessed and the expression of mitzvah that these Chevra Kadisha members display.  

Certainly, my purpose in presenting at the conference was to further my attempt to awaken a broader spirit in the Jewish community. In Pittsburgh we committed to expanding the role of the Chevra Kadisha from being limited to  performing the Tahara,  back to its original role of assisting the family from the moments before death through the burial and Shiva, without the need of, or interference from, commercial funeral directors. For that we were attacked by the industry and we fought back hard, and won. The reasons for the ability of the industry to usurp the rights and the function of the community are a network of social, economic and religious factors.  I came to the conference to proclaim that "the emperor has no clothes" and to try to get other communities to turn back the events of the last 60-70 years in America, and to reclaim the position and the responsibility of the community and its Chevra Kadisha. If that makes me a radical, I wear the term as a badge of honor and I hope to be worthy of the mission. But to miss the point of the conference and to brand the participants as anything other than members of the community coming together to further the performance of an essential mitzvah is simply inaccurate. 

There is one more imprecise characterization in the article. My co-presenter's comment about funeral directors being party planners may have been flip and irreverent, but it was not at all rude. He had, a moment earlier, told of a funeral in his family that was handled by a funeral home and he had spoken in glowing terms about the assistance the family received and how much he appreciated the efforts of the funeral home and its directors. In our presentation we went to great lengths to avoid any personal attacks on funeral directors. We made it clear that there are good people and not-so-good people in every industry , including our respective vocations. Audience members had said some very negative and personal things about their feelings of the lack of ethics among funeral directors and we steered the conversation away from that topic. The funeral director mentioned in the article did not challenge them or walk out in response to the seriously negative things they said. The reaction of that funeral director to what Mr. Grail said toward the very end of our presentation was, in my opinion, a staged, theatrical response to attempt to grab the focus of the conversation away from the emperor not having any clothes.

In my profession I deal with party planners all the time. The are very helpful and we have a mutual respect for each other. That is, so long as the party planner does not try to control the religious elements of the event - as does occur at times. At a funeral, so long as there is no - Heaven forbid -cosmetizing, embalming or cremation, a funeral director provides only logistical support. In those communities that, for whatever reason, there is not a strong and developed community structure, the funeral director can potentially provide a very important set of support services to the community. In communities such as our community in Pittsburgh where we come together as a community to help each other in difficult times and in good times, there is no need for those services and we won't apologize for that.
Now that Mr. Grail's comment has been published in your paper, I have to talk to my party planner friends and see if any of them were offended by the reference ;) 

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman
Shaare Torah Congregation
Pittsburgh, PA 

From Efrem Grail 

My Zeida read the Yiddish Forverts every day of his life here, after fleeing the Tzar's army in about 1904.  He would likely be thrilled that his only news source termed his button-down, corporate lawyer grandson "radical", an "unlikely revolutionar[y]" and a "rude[ ]...here[tic] ("Unlikely Radicals Take Aim at Corporate Jewish Burial Business Burial Societies Hope To Reclaim Ritual From Funeral Homes", June 6, 2013).


My family recently used a funeral director for a loved one, and it provided excellent logistical preparation and support.  But with rabbis to conduct services, the Chevra Kaddisha to conduct rituals, and the community to provide support, the role of a Jewish funeral director remains commercial and logistic: sales and marketing of event goods and services, planning for a party we’d all rather not have to host or attend.  At the North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference I addressed in Philadelphia last week, rather, it was other professionals in the room who accused the funeral direction business as "the single most unethical profession in America."


But this is not the issue.


Our state spent 28 months in a criminal investigation of our Rabbi for carrying out traditional, religious last rites according to Jewish law and practice, after the funeral directors’ board received complaints that he was “conducting funerals without a [state] license”).  It took a federal court case to secure the rights of Jews (and indeed religious persons of all faiths) to mourn according to their own particular beliefs and practices (see,Wasserman v. Burrell, No. 1:12-CV-1521, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182830 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2012), along with the state new policy required by that case, at 49 PA. Code Sec. 13.252).


The sad truth in this story is not the criminal investigation of a clergy member, or even the practices of the funeral industry in this country.  It is that our call for a return to last rites administered by loved ones and friends according to Halacha and Jewish tradition in the home, the synagogue and the immediate community is considered "revolutionary."  Instead, we outsource the work of burials and funerals to professionals we do not know and whose motives are to sell each of us something, often more elaborate and expensive than we want,than the deceased needs, or than Judaism requires and prefers.


The even sadder part is that Jews throughout the U.S. can't rely on extended family and friends to provide these necessary goods and services, to conduct meaningful burial and mourning rituals truly based in tradition and observance.  We've largely lost the knowledge and understanding of how.  More often Jews in the United States aren’t part of a community with the will or ability to provide them.  Sadder still is that we don't have enough rabbis and teachers who are supported by their communities to lead and guide us in such rituals that truly serve both individual and family needs, as well as a higher sense of Kavannah.


Efrem M. Grail, Esq.