Gathering of Jewish burial societies Feb. 17

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 09:37 AM

Rabbi Steve Sager, who spent 32 years leading Beth El Synagogue in Durham, is also part of the Beth El Burial Society. Jewish burial societies are those tasked with caring for bodies of the deceased from death to burial. That means preparing the body by cleaning it and dressing it in burial garments, keeping watch over the body and escorting it to the final resting place. More than tending to the body, it is also about helping the family who is living with loss, Sager said, like preparing food and the home prayer service during the first week of official mourning.
On Feb. 17, which falls this year on the Hebrew date Adar 7, Sager will hold an “afternoon of learning and companionship” for all Triangle Jewish burial societies. Adar 7, according to tradition, is the day Moses died, and text is interpreted that he was buried by God. Burial societies are a group of people who walk with a deceased person as far as they can go, Sager said. Society members close the coffin. They walk it to the grave. Even if they didn’t know the person who died.
The Beth El society has about 50 members, he said, both those who are long- and short-term members of the Conservative congregation. Sager is rabbi emeritus of Beth El. Society members are heroes, Sager said, and he wants to honor them at the Feb. 17 event, which will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Levin Jewish Community Center, 1937 W. Cornwallis Road, Durham. Sager’s educational initiative, Sicha, and the JCC are sponsoring the event.
The crucial work of burial societies is not about the individuals doing it, Sager said, and while it is satisfying it is also emotionally draining. Jewish burials are held as soon as possible, the same day as the death, Sager said, though changing times present challenges. Sometimes the family does not live nearby, or the person is not to be buried locally. So societies adjust to the needs of families. Sager said in his years at Beth El, he found the most crucial element of growing Jewish community is engaging, learning and listening to ancient voices.
“All of ancient Jewish literature is a record of unfolding conversations,” Sager said. Sicha is Hebrew for “conversation” and promotes dialogue between classical Jewish texts and lived experience.
Sager hopes society members – which include those from individual congregations as well as city-wide – will leave renewed, enriched and committed to the holy work. He also hopes they will be strengthened in the company of other people and open lines of communication for advice and support. For information, email Or visit