Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I came to Ottawa to serve as Rabbi of Temple Israel. Upon arrival, I was offered an orientation of the community by the then-executive director of the Vaad Ha’ir. After a rather lengthy explanation about community agencies, the director said “The jewel of our community is the Chevra Kadisha.” It is, he said, a fine example of men and women performing the mitzvot of Kebud Hametim, (honouring the dead), ritually preparing the deceased for burial.
He also indicated that the annual dinner honouring the volunteers was the high point of the communal social calendar.
It was not long before I discovered that there was a “bit” of hyperbole involved in this description. Yes, there were wonderful men and women volunteering their services to perform this important mitzvot. Yes, they responded in quick fashion to the everyday and the unusual. But volunteer opportunities were limited to individuals who belonged to select synagogues and who were shomer mitzvot. It soon become apparent that the Chevra Kadisha had also very clear and strict rules concerning the conduct of a funeral and burial under their auspices. Women were not allowed to be pall bearers, instrumental music was disallowed at funerals, and funerals were restricted to grave site or the Chevra Kadisha building. There were other rules presented as Halachah, but certainly idiosyncratic to our community.
I knew of at least five other Jewish communities in North America where these rules were not imposed. In fact, my parents were prepared for burials by members of the Chevra Kadisha of Lakewood, New Jersey, in a non-Jewish funeral home. Their responsibility ended upon presenting us with the certificate of Taharah.
The unwillingness of the Chevra Kadisha to broaden its definition of Jewish ritual practices created cognitive diffidence between the small “in crowd” and the increasingly non-traditional Jewish population of Ottawa.
As sometimes happens, unexpected tragedy is the impetus for change. The vicious murder of a woman who was the president of Canadian Hadassah; a former executive director of Agudath Israel synagogue and an active board member of Temple Israel forced the Chevra Kadisha to realize that religious diversity was on its door step. Faced with an ultimatum that unless they modified their rules a Taharah would be performed by the Chevra Kadisha of Montreal and that the funeral would be conducted by the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis at Agudath and women would be pall bearers, our Chevra Kadisha relented. A beautiful service was conducted the mourners were comforted and the “temple” walls were breached.
Today it is possible to say that the Chevra Kadisha respects religious diversity. Together with the Jewish Memorial Gardens, the varieties of Jewish ritual practices are honoured. It is now the Jewel of our Jewish community.
Diversity of practice strengthens who we are. Elasticity ensures we bend but do not break. Flexibility is maybe our strongest ally as our community faces the ongoing challenge of modernity.
If only the lessons of the Chevra Kadisha were transferable to the Beit Shemesh in Eretz Yisroel. After years of relative quiet, violence has broken out again between Haredi (ultra-orthodox) residents and non-Haredi residents, many of whom are religious Zionists. Israeli flags are routinely ripped from houses and cars. Women, secular and religious, are spat upon and threatened with stone throwing for dressing “immodestly” or walking on the same sidewalks as men. Some women have been seriously injured. Recently a 15-year-old Haredi youth threw stones at a police car, simply because it was not Haredi. This situation has devolved into such antagonism and hostility that Haredim youth have “mobbed” religious Zionist youth movement gatherings. Authorities, controlled by Haredim, have declared it is not their responsibility to resolve religious conflicts. The situation required members of the Knesset to make an inspection of the city. The member of the Knesset who chairs the committee on the status of women declared the level of verbal and physical harassment toward non-Haredi woman as totally unacceptable. The chair is an Arab-Israeli woman, Touma Sliman, from Nazareth.
The preservation of traditional practices by a small group over the wishes and desires of the majority does not bode well for those wishing to declare Israel a Jewish state.
If “Jewish” is defined so narrowly that it excludes the majority, then perhaps they will decide that it is a title they do not need to pass on to the next generation.