Solano Jews seek to revive traditional burial society

Some members of Solano County's Jewish community are resurrecting, so to speak, the long-dormant Jewish burial society.

For centuries, one of the first things Jewish immigrants did in their new communities — even before establishing a synagogue or a school — was start a chevra kadishah, according to Solano County Rabbi Stephen Vale. The Hebrew term for burial society literally means "holy group of friends."

Such a burial society was founded nearly a century ago by the original Jewish community in Vallejo. But the tradition slowly dissipated over time.

Longtime Vallejo resident Seymour Marcuse said any vestige of a burial society has completely disappeared.

"That went away with World War I," he said.

It may return. Solano County's growing and increasingly vibrant Jewish community needs an alternative to the secular funeral, said Vale.

A former Air Force rabbi, Vale is seeking to revitalize Jewish life in the county and launched Jewish Community of Solano County to reach out to Jews in the region. In December, he met with more than a dozen men and women from around the county to discuss providing traditional Jewish burials.

Performing this service for a bereaved family is considered one of the most significant mitzvahs a Jew can do, because it is one for which the recipient cannot thank you, said Vale, who was ordained in the Conservative movement.

One woman who plans to get involved is Lucille Dennis of Vacaville.

"I want to do something great before I leave this earth," she said "The greatest thing I can do is help a Jewish family."

Lionel Jacobs of Vallejo, who was part of a chevra kadishah in his native South Africa, is involved in the renewal effort because, he said, one must consider what one's grandparents and great-grandparents would have wanted.

"Every Jewish person must ask themselves, do you want to be buried Jewishly? If you do, then you want to be involved in this. If this is what you want for yourself, then you do it for others," Jacobs said.

"It's important that Jews in Solano County can have continuity throughout their lives and into their deaths," said Steve Harris of Benicia, who also attended the meeting.

Harris' father, Jack Harris of Cordelia, got involved as well. He views providing support in death as similar to offering aid in any emergency.

"I want everyone here to be know CPR, for my benefit. And I want everybody to be involved in the proper way of handling the dead…hence, I will do it for others. I think it's reasonable," Jack Harris said.

Those who volunteer to be part of the society can be involved in a number of ways — from offering solace and comfort, to sewing shrouds, to staying with and/or ritually washing bodies.

Creation of the new burial society will require instruction from teaching materials and experts, including Susan Lefelstein, director of Sinai Memorial Chapel's East Bay branch in Lafayette. She planned to meet with the group and "walk them through" a mock ritual preparation and purification of the body for burial.

Traditional Jewish funerary procedures differ from that of the majority society in several ways, Vale explained.

"Jewish tradition treats death as a part of life," he said. It also dictates that in death everyone is equal, and that no funeral should entail an ostentatious display of wealth. It is partly for this reason that the traditional casket is of plain pine.

"It's about equality, simplicity and a return to the earth," Vale said. "There is a spiritual power to simplicity."

The other reason for the plain pine box is the biblical injunction that the physical body is supposed to return to the earth. Nothing, then, should interfere with that natural process, including the use of heavy, metal-lined coffins or the practice of embalming.

"There shouldn't be anything between you and the earth," Vale said.

"In the Holy Land, they use only a shroud. Even the pine box is a concession to American sensibilities. The clay of the earth and the clay of the person are both holy — both made by God."

The procedures with regard to death begin even before a loved one dies, Vale said.

The dying person is encouraged to make a special confession, called the Viddui. It can be said for them by someone else, if the dying person is unable. Friends and loved ones are encouraged to say good-bye to the departing whenever possible.

When the person dies, loved ones traditionally rend, or tear, a piece of their clothing, generally over their heart, and wear it for seven days.

The dead must be buried as soon as possible, before sundown of the following day, according to Orthodox practice, unless Shabbat or a Jewish holiday prohibits burial. In the more liberal movements, burial is usually within three days. However, exceptions can be made for unusual circumstances.

Cremation is halachically prohibited for two reasons, Vale explained. One is a visceral reaction to the crematoria of the Holocaust. The other is based on a belief in eventual resurrection, requiring that at least one bone must remain.

Adherence varies widely among Jews, however.

Traditionally, the body of the deceased is never left alone during the period between death and burial. At least one person is supposed to accompany it at all times, reciting psalms and prayers.

"This was probably originally done to guard against evil spirits," said Vale. "But now it is done mostly out of respect for the dead, so they are not abandoned."

Before the body is put into a coffin, it also must be ritually purified by a specifically prescribed process of washing and praying.

When the coffin is placed in the ground, a break is made in the bottom, so it and its contents can more quickly decompose.

Loved ones are encouraged to help shovel dirt over the coffin, Vale said, so as to continue the tradition begun by the patriarch, Abraham, when he buried his wife, Sarah.

"Abraham took care of his own, so that's what we do," Vale said.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."