Jewish community does best to adhere to customs amid tragedy

November 24, 2018

At no time is the communal nature of Judaism more evident than at the end of life.

Multiply that by 11 at a time of tragic loss, and the role of the Jewish community becomes even more important.

That dynamic has played itself out this week as, one by one, the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill have been buried.

The first obligation of Jewish burial practices, that of guarding the body of the deceased, was made all the more difficult by a complex criminal investigation and the necessary autopsies. A special committee of Jewish lay people, known as a Chevra Kadisha (“Holy Society”), was tasked with organizing a round-the-clock vigil to guard the bodies.

Pittsburgh has two such burial societies - one Orthodox and one more liberal.

“It certainly adds more strain on the committee. You’re dealing with 11 beautiful souls who were taken from this earth, so there’s a lot more strain emotionally and physically,” said Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park.

Weisblatt, who planned to attend the funeral of dentist Richard J. Gottfried on Thursday and to host his shiva, said accompanying and preparing the body for burial is a holy obligation, or mitzvah, in Judaism.

“It’s a very sacred and honorable task to be a part of,” he said. “The group takes care to make sure they get the proper respect they’re due ... to be there and to take care of this body before we bury them.”

The committee provides the same service for any Jew in Greater Pittsburgh, including Greensburg. The body must also receive the rite of purification through washing and be clothed in a special garment. Burial must happen quickly, usually within 24 to 48 hours, but that was complicated by the nature of the deaths and the subsequent investigation, rabbis said.

“They had to wait until the bodies were released. In terms of the crime, there were things they couldn’t do because of what took place,” said Rabbi Sara Perman, who retired last year from Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.

The body should be buried intact and, in the case of a violent death, items stained with blood should be buried with the person. “Blood is considered part of their life force,” Perman said.

Perman said she knew of one case - not a Squirrel Hill shooting victim - where the Jewish person died at 11 a.m. and was buried by 2 p.m. the same day. Traditional Jewish funerals do not include calling hours or open caskets.

“You’re not supposed to see the deceased (but rely on) memories of the person as they lived,” she said.

In the case of the Squirrel Hill shooting victims, funerals were scheduled for Tuesday through Friday.

“Tradition dictates that we wash the body and ... that it never be alone up until it is buried because you don’t want the dead to feel abandoned,” said Rabbi Stacy Petersohn of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.

After the burial, the emphasis shifts to the mourners, who say special prayers during the first week, month and year. The first seven days after burial are known as shiva, which is the Hebrew word for seven.

Shiva practices differ, but they usually occur at the mourner’s home and involve special prayers and a “meal of comfort,” Perman said. “Many families don’t sit seven days anymore,” she said.

“It is our tradition in the first year after a person has died, the loved ones will say the Kaddish for them on a regular basis until the first anniversary,” Petersohn said.

During the Kaddish prayers for the dead, a quorum of 10 Jewish adults, or minyan, is required.

“It’s something really powerful that you don’t mourn alone. The whole community is with you,” Weisblatt said. “There is such comfort in the aspect of being with the mourner and helping them through all the stages (of grief).”

Congregation Emanu-El Israel, 222 N. Main St., Greensburg, will hold a special Shabbat service of solidarity at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The public is invited.

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