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Chevra Kadisha performs sacred rituals despite COVID-19 pandemic

By Lee Chottiner
Community Editor

An 18th century painting of a chevra kadisha at work (Jewish Museum of Prague)

When the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic shut down Louisville in March, things didn’t feel too different to the members of the local chevra kadisha.
After all, the “holy society” – the English translation for chevra kadisha – which washes and watches over the dead until burial in accordance with Jewish custom, had always taken precautions when doing its job. Specifically, the members used personal protection equipment (PPE).
“We’ve always worn masks; we’ve always worn booties on our shoes; we’ve always worn aprons; we’ve always worn gloves,” said Fred Levein, a member of the chevra kadisha for 20 years. “That’s been the protocol from Day One.”
And, as their records recently showed, the number of times they have been called out since March is keeping pace with the rate for the same period last year.
The society, following guidelines set out by the National Association of Chevra Kadishas, has tightened its protocol.
Instead of changing into their PPE in the same room at Herman Meyer & Son funeral home, as members normally do, they now change in a separate room.
“That was recommended by the National Association of Chevra Kadishas,” said Jack “Sonny” Meyer, the CEO of Herman Meyer & Son. “They recommended a changing location outside the room, because you’re touching fewer things that could be infected.”
In addition to face masks, the members also wear face shields now, and instead of half aprons, they have opted for full-length ones.
But the rituals haven’t changed.
“I take great comfort in the fact that most of the people in the chevra kadisha have been doing it for years and years, so we feel very comfortable with each other,” Levein said. “We know what to do, and I didn’t really have any concern during COVID.”
The job of a chevra kadisha is two-fold: tahara (purification), performing the ritual cleaning of the body (by men for males and women for females); and serving as shomrim (guards), watching over the body, which is never left alone until it is buried.
Judaism lauds members of chevra kadishas, teaching that the service they perform is a kindness that can never repaid.
Jim Loeser, the longest-serving member of the Louisville chevra kadisha, said people in the community may not be aware of the service that the society performs – until they actually need it themselves.
“A lot of people probably don’t think about it or know about it,” he said. “Unless you have somebody you lose and you need to get it (the rituals) done.
“It’s not something that just anybody could do either,” he added.
So far, the chevra kadisha has not prepped any patients that have died from COVID. But if they do, a modified protocol is already in place: The members will place a folded shroud atop the deceased, which comes sealed in what Meyer calls a “disaster pouch” (body bag). They then recite the traditional prayers. The deceased is never touched.
According to Meyer, the funeral has handled arrangements for four COVID cases so far. One was cremated and the others were sent from out of state for rites and burial.
But Loeser said the staff at Meyers has already explained the protocol to chevra members in case they do get a COVID case.
“They pretty much walked us through what we would have to do,” Loeser said. “If we actually get one, I’m sure one of them will be there to go through it again with us before we do it.”
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the chevra has nothing to do with COVID at all: It is age.
At 54, Levein is now one of the younger members of society, most of whom are about 20 years older than he. What’s more, there are 13 members – five men and eight women – making it difficult at times to find people who can come out when called.
For now, according to Loeser, who has served on the chevra for 30 years, members continue to come out when called.
“It’s always kind of difficult, but I think every one of us on the list feels it’s their obligation to come when they need them. Just like any other time.”
But they do need help, Levein said.
“It seems that its harder for them to find people to come in,” Levein said. “I know I had to go in kind of very early or very late once because they just needed a person. And my guess it’s because so many members of the chevra kadisha are older. We really could use more younger people.”

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