“Start Spreading the News”

Remarks by Barry E. Pitegoff

Chair, Cemetery Committee/Chevra Kadisha

Temple Israel, Tallahassee, Florida

(Part of Union for Reform Judaism)


2nd North American Chevra Kadisha Conference

June 6th-8th, 2004

Las Vegas


1)    Theme: How we have been evolving from a Cemetery Committee to a Chevra Kadisha

2)    History

a)    Temple Israel is the dominant Jewish force in Tallahassee, a Reform Congregation of about 360 families and about 60+ years old.

b)   There was a minimal Jewish community in the 1800s, but it was successful in acquiring a Jewish Section in the municipal cemetery of its day, now known as The Old City Cemetery.  Our Rabbi Emeritus Stanley Garfein and I recently toured those gravesites. 

i)       That small group eventually formalized their structure into “Jewish community, Inc.” in the late 1930’s, eventually became “K.K. Bene Israel” (Holy Congregation of the Children of Israel), and then became our Temple Israel. 

ii)     Hence, we really can trace the Chevra Kadisha concept in Tallahassee back to the mid to late 1800’s. 

c)    Not long after the congregation was founded, the congregation realized that the only way there was going to be sacred Jewish burial land in Tallahassee was if the Temple bought, developed, and managed Jewish cemeteries.  The Old City cemetery was full.  The Chevra concept was sort of dormant.  The City of Tallahassee had developed five new cemeteries, and the congregation went before the City Commission twice to acquire permission to purchase 200-250 contiguous spaces in each of two of the city cemeteries to resell to the Jewish community and to operate as sacred Jewish burial land as we interpreted the Reform tradition.  A past president of the Temple, Kurt Goldsmith, Z”L, volunteered as the Cemetery Administrator for 22 years.  Basically we bought spaces from the city, resold them at higher prices to cover costs, other needs, and future purchases, and we relied on the skill and sensitivity of a multi-faith SCI funeral home to assist with the basic Jewish rituals.  This consisted of stocking the kosher casket, applying tachrichim, and helping with supplies, such as kippot, k’riah ribbons, and programs with the 23rd Psalm.  The community, dominated by Reform traditions, had not demanded tohora or shomrim; its occasional request was handled by volunteers involved with that funeral.

3)    Modern Evolution Begins about 1986

a)    Kurt retires as Cemetery Committee Chair and essentially its sole member; I volunteer to train as his replacement.  He had focused on the land management only.

b)   I became fascinated by the myriad of mitzvah opportunities available by being with colleagues in the Jewish community, members and non-members, at very significant times in their lives, or, as Rabbi Richie Address says, “at the spiritual moments.” 

i)       I took hospice training and became an early certified hospice volunteer in Tallahassee.

ii)     I took the Florida State University School of Nursing Course in the Dynamics of Death on the Patient and the Family

iii)   I began to read voraciously on end-of-life care and bereavement assistance with an emphasis on our tradition.

iv)  I recruited one other regular member of the Cemetery Committee

v)    Both members of the committee, and recently one other ad hoc member, lead by my efforts, officiate at funerals and memorial dedications when the rabbi is not available.  The congregation and community has gotten the understanding that ordained clergy is not always necessary.

vi)  We negotiated and developed our third cemetery, which is about one-eighth sold in just a few years.

4)    For the 30 years that our Rabbi Emeritus Stanley Garfein held our pulpit, starting in the late 1960’s, he included sermons on funerals, burials, bereavement, ethical wills, encouraged k’riah, and inspired me on the pathway of this mitzvah, for which I am grateful.

5)    Spreading the News – Death Announcements

a)    In the beginning, a death would occur in the congregation, and I would institute a phone tree to all members who were likely to have been touched by the deceased and the deceased’s family.  The advantage was that it spread the word quickly.  The disadvantage was that it reduced to the brief and factual details only.

b)   Now, the phone tree is replaced by e-mail.  Whether I am at home, on a business trip, or at the office, as soon as I have all the details about a death, I send an e-mail to the Temple Office, which then forwards it to the entire congregation (almost all is on e-mail).  The subject line is always, “Nichum Avelim,” or “Comfort the Mourners,” actually, “Comforting the Mourners.”  This teaches a phrase and alerts the members to the subject.  It allows me a teaching moment by opening with a grief/bereavement quote.  It provides all the details about the funeral and the needs of the family involved.

6)    Spreading the News – Temple Newsletters

a)    Temple Israel has a monthly printed newsletter and a mid-month e-newsletter.  The Cemetery Committee has space available for a column every time.  We have contributed articles to raise the awareness and knowledge of the congregation about end-of-life rituals, encouraging pre-planning, and why cremation is not consistent with Judaism.

7)    Spreading the News – Community Involvement

a)    We have a presence on interfaith, end-of-life chaplaincy committees in the community, including the palliative care chaplaincy advisory board of one of the hospitals. 

b)   We lecture to Religion and Nursing students at Florida State University on the Jewish perspective on end-of-life care and rituals.

8)    Spreading the News – In-Service Training

a)    With a little bit of Temple subsidy, we have been present at the 2002 Duke University seminar on Jewish Perspectives in End of Life Care, at last year’s Chevra Kadisha Conference, and at this year’s Chevra Kadisha Conference.  The learning gets incorporated into the newsletters and messages to the congregation.

9)    Spreading the News – Adult Education

a)    Temple Israel has a renewed emphasis on Adult Education with a series of six-week courses.  Our committee was asked to conduct a six-week course. I titled it, “Teach Us to Number Our Days,” and took the first class, which just ended, of 14 students, on a journey of gradually more intense exposure to out end-of-life rituals.  The synopsis described the class as teaching “from visiting the sick to consoling the bereaved.”

b)   We started the class with 14 students and ended the class with 14 students, a major accomplishment.  We met each Tuesday night from 7PM to 9PM.  One student was Jewish but not a member; two students were not Jewish but licensed funeral directors from the funeral home we use; there were even three families in the class, two husband-wife teams, and one uncle-niece team.

c)    The class was designed with several goals:

i)       Modify comfort level with death;

ii)     Nurture more committee members for the “pillars of survival;”

iii)   Teach and inspire the writing of ethical wills;

iv)  Teach tohora and begin to develop the sufficient people resources to offer it regularly.

d)   Was the class successful?

i)       We have been asked to offer the class again, and regularly.

ii)     One member of the class, who is Temple Newsletter Coordinator, has added a regular column to the Temple Newsletter acknowledging those members who are in Shiva and Shloshim.  Previously, this was only in the Shabbat leaflets.

iii)   Half the class started and shared parts of their ethical wills with the class.

iv)  Two students have volunteered to be on a tohora call list.

v)    The following excerpt comes from an e-mail from a husband-wife team in the Rabbi’s Introduction to Judaism Class, where the husband in this team is converting, “we are both currently in the Rabbi’s Introduction to Judaism Class where we just discussed the act of Tohora and we’d be honored in participating in this mitzvah as well as doing anything that is needed of us.  We are also interested in your class, of course.”

10)           What have we learned?  What have we taught?

a)    That all the movements of Judaism come very close to each other when it comes to end-of-life rituals and guidelines.

b)   That the community is receptive to moving its level of knowledge and application on this topic if we but lead the way.

c)    That the regular offering of tohora is visible on the horizon as we develop a sufficient set of trained volunteers.

d)   As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says in her books, life it truly in the stories.

e)    That even a small Jewish community is a microcosm of national actuarial demographics.  We have been involved in sudden deaths and deteriorating patients, in stillbirths and those who have reached a large measure of days, with the indigent and with suicides, with standing room only funerals and with deceased for whom we are the only advocates.

f)      Perhaps, most importantly, that the Temple Israel Cemetery Committee is really the Temple Israel Chevra Kadisha.  There was a time when we thought of ourselves as the Cemetery Committee and felt that the “rite of passage” for the moniker was the regular performing of tohora.  With the help of Kavod v’Nichum, these conferences, the Duke Seminar, and conversations with David Zinner we have learned that by offering the range of services we do in our community and by nurturing them to the next levels, we truly are a Chevra Kadisha.  So, this year, the Temple Directory does not say, “Cemetery Committee.”  It says, “Cemetery Committee/Chevra Kadisha.”  Next year, it will say, “Chevra Kadisha/Cemetery Committee.”  Thanks for helping us to get there.