Creating Holy Community in Life and Death

"Formerly, the expense of carrying out the dead was harder on the family than the death itself; the family therefore abandoned the corpse and fled.  [This practice changed when] Rabban Gamliel [President of the Sanhedrin] disregarded his own dignity, and had his body carried out in flaxen shrouds. Afterwards, all the people followed his lead and had themselves carried out in flaxen shrouds."

Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a-27b

The Gamliel Institute is a center for study, training, and advocacy concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod V'Nichum (Honor and Comfort), a North American organization which provides assistance, training, and resources about Jewish death and bereavement practice for chevra kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Currently no North American rabbinical school, chaplaincy, mortuary or thanatology certification program offers a comprehensive articulated certification program to deal with all the issues surrounding the end of life from a Jewish perspective. The Gamliel Institute will fill that gap by addressing the issues and challenges which have an impact on individuals and families and which have implications for communal responsibility. In an environment that acknowledges the contributions of all the streams of Judaism, the Institute will bring together diverse disciplines of community organizing, consumer advocacy, bikkur cholim, chaplaincy and rabbinics, thanatology, hospice care, grief therapy, funeral direction, cemetery management, and legacy planning and preparation into the creation of a unique, comprehensive training program.

Prospective Institute students will include chevra kadisha volunteers, rabbis, chaplains, funeral directors, and Jewish communal professionals. Institute faculty will be drawn from notable, respected educators, historians, scholars, and activists. The Institute is directed by Rabbi Stuart Kelman,author, Jewish educator, and founding rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and David Zinner, founder and Executive Director of Kavod v'Nichum.

The centerpiece of the Institute is a certification program employing a variety of distance-learning and on-site practicum formats. Students meet each year at the annual Kavod v'Nichum Conference (usually in the early summer) for in-person training and networking and are expected to participate in local training opportunities as well as other relevant national conferences. At the end of the program, students have the opportunity to join in a three-week practicum/study tour to New York, Prague (the home of the first Chevra Kadisha), and Israel to study with local chevra kadisha groups and experts. Our coursees focus on six major areas as follows:


Chevra Kadisha - function, communal role; role of women, secrecy, Kabbalistic influences, money, recruiting, social functions, Zayin Adar; Textual sources: Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, modern; Historical Overviews: Jewish Burial Societies - development in Europe and America till today; landsmanshaft, Goodman, Tri-Partite Commission, Kavod v'Nichum; Toward New Policies on Jewish Funeral Practices.

Compassion, Active Listening, Bikkur cholim, illness, Jewish hospitals; healing movement, chaplaincy, hospice, viddui, death preparation: legacy writing, ethical will, organ and tissue donation; teshuvot: helping families make funeral and burial arrangements; counseling of mourners, supporting the mourner beyond shiva.

Tahara and Shmira - Spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tameh; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefila, training, impediments; safety; complications.

Organizing, Training, Education  - Communal, Chevra Kadisha and leadership; organizing: the basics, raising communal awareness, pre-planning; pre-paying, using agreements and contracts; death education and training for children and adults – pitfalls/blocks. Working with grief: mourning and healing; Issues: Legal, health, role of rabbi, financial, support, structure, first responders, seudah havraha (meal of comfort), leading Shiva services, studying Mishnah in the Shiva House, mourner follow-up, recruiting and training, resources, Hebrew terminology; Use of drashot in training; Prayer.

Ritual Practice - How and why traditional practices evolved: funeral, shiva, shloshim, yahrtzeit, Yizkor, unveiling, keriah; the Funeral Service: hesped, 23rd Psalm, el malei rachamim, pall bearers, procession, stops, burial, book burial, amputations, autopsy, suicide, viewing and embalming, cremation, liners, kaddish, monument design, mausoleums, genealogy, intermarried burials . Legal sources: classic and modern, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform; Theology: God, afterlife, soul.

Funerals and Burials - Ethics, Rabban Gamliel, leadership, ostentatiousness, embarrassment, poverty. Evolution of funeral homes: embalming, viewing; working with funeral homes: building a tahara room, contracts; starting a new funeral home, buying an existing funeral home, non-profit funeral homes; evolution of cemeteries: cave burial, catacombs, communal burial, municipal, military, private, and non-profit ownership, cemetery ownership, landsmanschaft, federations of cemeteries; acquiring land, zoning, cemetery grid layout, recordkeeping, sales, contracts, rules; purchasing: GPL, transportation, service location, casket, opening and closing, liners, monuments, perpetual care; cemetery future: landscaping, sacred ground, consecration, synagogue cooperation, abandonment, corporate buy-out; disaster planning. Federal Trade Commission, Canadian Regulations; medical examiner, autopsy, organ and tissue donation.

By the end of the program, students will have developed theoretical and practical expertise in the halachot, minhagim, logistics and finances surrounding serious illness, death, funerals, burial, mourning, and legacy preparation, including ethical wills. Students will be prepared to work with and assist grieving families before and after death and to organize and train volunteers to perform these mitzvot in their communities.

Will students attend? Over 3/4 of a million people have visited, Kavod v'Nichumâ's website. The Chevra Kadisha Conferences are well attended and have generated enthusiastic response. There is a hunger for in-depth education. The Gamliel Institute can fill this critical void in education and service delivery and has the potential to change the current culture surrounding end of life issues in the Jewish community – from denial and neglect to awareness, acceptance, and healthy integration into family and community life.

Interested in learning more?

Rabbi Stuart Kelman 1003 Mariposa Avenue Berkeley, CA  94707 510-524-5886 For additional information about Kavod v'Nichum see