Tell The Forward how wrong they are about chevra kadisha and KVN.

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Tell The Forward how wrong they are about chevra kadisha and KVN. Michael Slater 6/23/13 11:35 AM
Hello All--

It is an honor to be part of a group of menschy folks doing good work in the world, and a comfort to know that I was not alone in my disgust at the coverage given to Kavod v'Nichum and our recent conference in The Forward.  It's nice to be honored and comforted without being dead or in mourning, now that I think about it.  

Please consider writing a letter to the editor of The Forward expressing your views.  A short, pithy letter is more likely to get published and read than a longer dissection of their misstatements.  Send an email to  If you are a Forward subscriber, please indicate that in your note.

I wrote a letter to the editor, as well as one directly to the author, Josh Nathan Kazis.  His email address at the paper is listed along with his article, as is his twitter @listing.  He had cc'd his managing editor, Larry Cohler-Esses, on an email to me.  I don't think it unfair to contact either of them directly, as both their professional email addresses are listed on the paper's website.
Josh Nathan-Kazis <>
Larry Cohler-Esses <>

I am including below the text I sent to the editors (scroll down).  I am also including a version of what I sent the author, detailing points I think he got wrong.  He claims he made only a couple of factual errors.  He and his editor may have another agenda of which I am unaware, but I don't want to be misrepresented as a part of their issues.

I know that Rabbi Wasserman and his attorney, Efrem Grail, sent letters to the editor.  I will see if they are willing to have their notes posted here.

Please let me know if you think I have anything wrong in what I wrote below.  I am, as always, open to a spirited discussion "l'shem shamyim," for the sake of furthering the mitzvoth we do in the world, honestly and respectfully.

Thanks, kol tuv, shetizku lemitzvot.

Michael Slater
President, Board of Directors of KVN.
My letter to the editor:

In the article, “Unlikely Radicals Take Aim At Corporate Jewish Burial Business,”  (June 21 Issue), Josh Nathan-Kazis makes some significant errors that distort the work of Kavod v'Nichum and the mitzvoth we advocate.
Neither Rabbi Daniel Wasserman nor his attorney, Efrem Grail, represents Kavod v’Nichum (KVN).  The prominence given them does not reflect the goals and values of KVN. They were invited to the conference to discuss a particular religious-freedom legal case in Pennsylvania.  Kavod v'Nichum works with many funeral directors and cemetery managers to promote shared Jewish values and communal interests.  We would never denigrate our partners by calling them “coffin hawkers.” 

Calling the chevra kadisha a "secret society" is also incorrect.  Despite the traditions of discretion associated with the work of chevra kadisha, KVN advocates education, rather than secrecy, around this sacred work.
The cost of funerals in the US and Canada raises serious issues, and the Jewish community needs to act as educated consumers in their decisions about death and burial.  Sadly, by taking potshots at participants, the Forward's article made it harder, not easier, to maintain the values we all care about in this important conversation.

Michael Slater
President, Board of Directors
Kavod v'Nichum (Honor and Comfort)
Text I sent to Josh Nathan-Kazis:
Let me answer your request for details on errors.  I think there is a mix of factual error and error of understanding.

Let me start with the simpler issues.

Your statement that we "are not allowed to speak inside the tahara room" is incorrect.  It is a custom not to speak unnecessarily.  Speaking words of prayer, and speaking when necessary to facilitate a tahara is allowed.  Silence is a minhag, a custom that can be deviated from when a greater need arises.

Your choice of the phrase "secret society" is also factually inaccurate, but here we also start to get into errors of understanding, and errors of representation.  

As reflected in some of the comments to this article, "secret society" is the wrong way to describe a chevra kadisha.  While the details of any given tahara or family situation might be kept in the strictest confidence, the nature of the work of the chevra is not secret.  The mitzvoth and minhagim are all open to be discussed.  By analogy, you would never call the American Medical Association a secret society, despite the fact that its members are part of an intricate subculture with its own particular training, lingo and rituals including holding patient information in confidence.  You spoke with a few women from [one particular chevra kadisha], who said that the woman who leads their community's chevra kadisha does not want the members of their group recognized in public.  When you were speaking with them, I told you that theirs is not a universally-adopted practice.  We are not "meant to be anonymous" in our communities.  In most communities, the members of the chevra are not on a secret roster.  We might not trumpet our membership on a plaque on the synagogue wall, but that's because we do the work for its own sake, not for public reward.  So, why call us a "secret society?"  You are either making a choice to pigeon-hole, or you failed to understand something basic but subtle about what we do.

Your choice of the words "conference attendee" to refer to Rabbi Wasserman and Mr. Grail is incorrect.  Rabbi Wasserman and Mr. Grail do not represent Kavod v'Nichum or its policies.  Is someone who spends 90 minutes at a two-day long conference an attendee, or merely a presenter?  Rabbi Wasserman raised the same issue in a letter he told me he was sending to the editor of The Forward.   Leonard Fein came for dinner and gave a keynote speech.  Would you have called Leibel an attendee as well?  Or was that a choice of words specifically for Wasserman and Grail designed to create a particular association in the minds of your readers, an association that is unfounded?

The choice of a stock photo of Rabbi Wasserman is an error, as he is neither a member of the organization nor a designated representative.

Not only was our conference "not limited to anti-funeral home polemics," that was never the point of the conference in the first place.  Representing the conference in the frame of anti-funeral industry polemics is a poor representation of reality, despite your balancing that part of the story with other things.  Kavod v'Nichum works with funeral directors and cemetery managers who share our values of helping Jews live Jewishly.  Using the phrase "coffin hawkers" in reference to the tone of the whole conference creates antagonism where dialogue is desired. 

Calling us a death care group is an inept choice.  The term "death care" was created by the funeral industry as one of their many euphemisms.  (As if to say, "We really care about your family when a loved one passes away."  At least "death care" uses the word death and not some other euphemism, and I'll leave aside the tension between "caring" and profit for now.)  Let's say a reader of your article had never heard the term death care, and then Googled it.   The vast majority of the hits that person would see have to do with the funeral industry.  More importantly, Rabbi Stu Kelman and I specifically told you that the aim of our organization goes beyond a focus on the dead body and tahara.  We told you that we emphasize an entire segment of the life cycle.  We told you that we stress working with people when they are alive and ill, and working with living people after a death.  Yes, we focus on dying Jewishly.  More importantly, we try to teach people how to live Jewishly.  At some point, your lumping this into a catchphrase represents an error in understanding.

You got some of it right, including biographical details, quotes about seeing death as a part of life, the importance of community-building, and so on.

It is important to reflect what Kavod v'Nichum and the work of chevra kadisha is, but it's also important to reflect what it isn't.   Unfortunately, the headline frame you created for your article misrepresents an organization and its core work.  So, strictly speaking, did you make many factual errors?  Some, not many.  Does that make you right?  You are clearly within your rights as a journalist, but there's a lot you don't get right.  

An open discussion of issues of life and death in a Jewish context is important to the vitality of the Jewish community.   Misrepresentation does not help move that conversation along.

Re: [jewish-funerals] Tell The Forward how wrong they are about chevra kadisha and KVN. Susan Barnes 6/24/13 9:15 AM

Michael -


Thanks for sharing your letter. It's well written, and hits a lot of important points.


From: "Michael Slater" <>
Sent: Sunday, June 23, 2013 11:35:18 AM
Subject: [jewish-funerals] Tell The Forward how wrong they are about chevra kadisha and KVN.--
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Re: [jewish-funerals] Tell The Forward how wrong they are about chevra kadisha and KVN. malkeiva 6/26/13 5:48 AM
yes, thank you michael for your letter and to you susan for yours. i just wanted to let you know that yesterday  i sent a lte.
kol tuv,