A Chevra Grows in Bozeman
Supporting chevros kadisha is a core mission of NASCK’s. While some of our chevros are large and well-established, some are quite small and new. Here’s the story of one of the newest chevros in North America.
Montana is a big state with a small population: an average of only 8 people in each square mile. (Compare that to New Jersey, where 1,300 people vie for the same amount of space.)
As one would probably guess, the Jewish population in Montana is also quite sparse. Rabbi Chaim Bruk, the head Chabad shaliach in the state, estimates it at 5,000. Again, for a sense of scale, compare that to a single Brooklyn neighborhood, Boro Park, which has 100,000 Jews.
While Montana had a couple of “Jewish cemeteries,” none of them followed halachic guidelines, and the closest chevra kadisha was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 600 miles away.
But Rabbi Bruk decided it was time for that to change, and enlisted the help of NASCK and our friend, Neshama Foundation in South Florida.
First, Rabbi Bruk bought land and consecrated the Neshama Gardens Cemetery in Bozeman, one of Montana’s largest cities.
Next on the agenda: establishing a chevra kadisha. Rabbi Jay Lyons, director of NASCK’s South Florida Jewish Cemetery, flew to Bozeman, where 13 men and women had gathered to take part in a full-day chevra kadisha training. Rabbi Lyons was not the only one with a long day of travel; some of the participants drove three hours or more in order to attend the session.
The first part of the day was dedicated to tahara technique, with participants taking turns dressing the mannequin Rabbi Lyons had brought with him, and becoming comfortable with tying the knots.
There are no Jewish funeral homes in Montana, so after a break for lunch, the group traveled to a local non-Jewish funeral home that had agreed to work with them. The funeral director joined them in the prep room, where he and Rabbi Lyons developed procedures and protocols for how to accommodate the new chevra in a way that was comfortable for the funeral home.
Establishing a friendly and respectful relationship with the funeral home is crucial to the success of a chevra kadisha, Rabbi Lyons explains, and understanding how to treat a funeral director is an important part of chevra kadisha training. “He doesn’t exist to serve us. We have to make every interaction with him pleasant.”
(NASCK’s Founding President Rabbi Elchonon Zohn underscores the importance of having a pleasant working relationship with funeral directors, noting that funeral directors who have an amicable relationship with the chevros they work with are more likely to explain tahara and tachrichim in a positive manner to Jews who are unaware of Jewish tradition.)
By the end of the day, these Jews, previously scattered across the Big Sky State, had combined to form a single unit: a chevra, with the information and inspiration required to take on one of the most sacred tasks in our faith.
And as they bid farewell to Rabbi Lyons, who was boarding the first of the three flights required to get back to Florida, they knew it was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Just as NASCK was with them at the creation of their chevra, they knew we would be with them in the future, providing whatever advice, training, and support they might need to perform the holy work of chesed shel emes. It is their mission to support the Jews in their care; it is our mission to support them. Together, we enhance kavod hameis, and are m’kadesh shem shamayim.