I think the lack of respect and appreciation for the chevra during the middle decades of this century has many reasons. The underlying cause is probably an outgrowth of the way in which European Jews settled in this country. They were generally individuals seeking to better their economic or family situation in a land of opportunity, not people coming to build Jewish community. Most often they were seeking to become Americans. When Jews with a deep commitment to Orthodoxy arrived, they often felt this existing secular American-Jewish community to be a threat to their beliefs.
What therefore developed was a chevra kadisha of two kinds. On the one hand were the devout, sincerely religious Jews who, in America, perceived themselves to be in an atmosphere dangerous to the maintenance of almost every facet of their chosen way of life. They came to the Jewish funeral home to do battle with the director in a holy war where every compromise was perceived as territory lost. These chevras, representing societies or congregations, had little understanding of the practical and economic needs and problems of the funeral director, nor were they willing to learn. They were satisfied with the knowledge that when one of their own passed on, they could pressure the funeral home into doing the funeral their way.
Prevalent in many other communities was the chevra comprised of those people who could not make it in the business world, who found a way of making a dollar by doing a job no one else would do. They commercialized the chevra. Their concern was not the respect for the work they were doing, and if necessitated by time or convenience, the tahara would be done quickly, without sensitivity, without any real standard of excellence. Their purpose was served as long as it was done and they were paid, and the service was provided to the basic satisfaction of all.
This continued through the '50's and '60's as the Holocaust survivors came to this country, as separate individuals, without roots or community identification. Interestingly, where entire communities came together, like the German Jewish community and some of the Hassidic sects that settled in this country, this phenomenon didn't occur. They just transplanted their chevra to this country, maintaining the respect and the integrity of its work.
Thank G-d, this situation is turning around. As the children of the Holocaust generation are forming communities of their own, their concern for this important facet of the Jewish lifecycle has come back into focus. Chevras of young, educated, and sincere people, men and women committed to maintaining the beauty and the uniqueness of our heritage, have sprung up all across this country. Many of these chevras will act as the legal agents of the family regarding all funeral arrangements, thus sparing the family that difficulty, while speeding up the process of burial. These groups have the respect of the funeral directors they deal with and the confidence of the communities they serve. I know because I have lectured to many of them.
I am fortunate and proud to be at the head of the chevra in Queens and Long Island under the auspices of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, a group of Rabbis representing over 60 congregations. In our area, the percentage of Jewish people having tahara has increased from 2-3% to almost 25% in the last 15 years. Respect for the work we do continues to grow, as we strive to maintain the highest standards of excellence and efficiency. Aware of and sensitive to the complexities of the Jewish funeral home, we have developed a wonderful working relationship based on mutual respect. We have invited the Jewish funeral directors to our annual Zayin Adar dinner, where they have expanded their appreciation for and knowledge of the work of the chevra. Our chevra is always willing to assist in obtaining a quick release from a hospital or medical examiner. We are careful to maintain the cleanliness of the funeral home, work within the time frame the director is comfortable with, while never compromising what is required by our beautiful and special customs and traditions.
It is my conviction that this trend will continue to grow and spread, so that every Jew will be privileged to be buried with the special beauty that is a tahara, by caring, sensitive and special people who make up the chevra kadisha. As Jews it is their birthright and heritage.