Unsung Heroes – Helping when you can’t be thanked

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By Chandrea Serebro

David Weber is lucky enough to be one of those guys who can boast one hundred percent job satisfaction. You might be surprised when I tell you that David is the General Manager and Funeral Director at the Johannesburg Chevrah Kadisha Burial Services. But, says David, “I am not sure what inspires me, other than that I am one of the lucky few people who get to say truthfully that I love my work.” The misaskim, or undertakers, who David describes as dealing in the work “from deathbed to grave”, are arguably the most hidden of the heroes in our community. They operate quietly, stealthily, doing their job of retaining the dignity both of the deceased and the family with compassion and subtlety, without complaint. “We first and foremost assure the bereaved that they need not worry. We will attend to all the requirements and formalities that go along with death and burial. We pride ourselves in the fact that after one has lost a family member in a natural way , all that is required is one telephone call and thereafter to arrive at the cemetery a half hour prior to the funeral.” At one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching times for people to be going through – the death of a loved one – it is the misaskim of the Chevrah Kadisha who take the load off our shoulders and arrange much of the details so that we can focus our energy and emoton on dealing with our loss. And it’s a great mitzvah, but, says David, “one cannot undertake a job like this for the mitzvot that it fulfills. One has to have a passion for the work. When people hear what I do and marvel on the mitzvah of it, I have to respond (with his same characteristic humour which makes it all bearable), ‘You should see my aveirot (sins)!’”

David began his career as a weekly volunteer doing tahara (preparing the body for burial) which he did for over 20 years. After realising that he was able to perform the tasks and duties at hand without lasting traumatic after-effects, he dived headlong into it. “Having been introduced to working at the Chevrah Kadisha doing tahara by my father-in-law, I realised soon that I was the man for the job, and that once you are involved, it is something which is extremely difficult to give up.” Shortly after he became involved, his (late) father sent him a siddur that had been given to his grandfather with whom he shares a name, David Weber, by the Salisbury Chevrah Kadisha for the work he had done, bringing home to David that he was in some way carrying on the family’s commitment to a job that is so important in the community, delivered by an institituion that none of us would be able to function without: the Chevrah Kadisha. “In life and in death, no Jew gets left behind” – the Chev’s motto, reiterates David, and he follows this motto religiously in his work.

“People rarely forget the support and comfort which they have received. The appreciation which they show, sometimes years after a tragedy, is for me what gives me such nachas and encourages me to keep going.” But what must surely be left behind when you are off is the job when you are off – something which is at times easier said than done. Specifically when dealing with tragedies, David cannot sleep well until the burial is over. “We all have open access to debriefing which I fortunately have never needed. When I discussed this issue with a social worker , I asked her how I would know when I needed to use the facility: ‘Your family will soon tell you,’ was her reply.” Dealing with families after a loss under tragic circumstances is a very emotional, agonising undertaking, and even after being involved for so many years, David still sheds tears at the pain of others, reminding him that he has not become desensitised or devoid of emotion, and that he feels the grief of others deeply. This pain was once closer to home than David would have liked many years ago when he had to bury a young child who had died of a particular illness. “My son had had the same infection some weeks before and fortunately survived. One can only imagine my thoughts as we were doing the tahara – I was beside myself, and grateful, and filled with so many conflicting emotions.”

And it is not a job for most people. In fact, says David, there are very few people who are able to do this kind of work. Not only because it can be grim at times, but, he explains, because people generally like public recognition for the work they do for the community. And for these misaskim, their achievments are not advertised, and the recognition they get is not public or on a grand scale. “Yes, this job too has its recognition, but the difference is that we work quietly in the background, and the recognition comes from the people we serve.” David’s wife was stopped the other day by a friend who had attended a bar mitzvah where he had been thanked publicly for finding a burial spot for the bobba who had recently passed away, next to the zaida. “When my family hear this, they are always so proud. And truly, they are the ones who deserve to get the nachas,” he says, because they are the ones who never see him at the grandkid’s parties or the family lunches, because he is busy working. “This job teaches you a great appreciation for your wife and children, for their understanding and support.”

But there are of course many day-to-day challenges of the job as well: being called to duty in the middle of the night, the lack of sleep, working in the rain and the mud, the blistering heat and the elements. But, says Keith Tabakin, who has worked at the Chev for the past four years, the mitzvah of doing tahara, and of helping people out when they cannot help themselves, is rewarding. “I once was called to a house where the deceased turned out to be the father of a good friend. After the funeral, he was so appreciative that I had been there. He had felt calmed that his father was cared for with dignity.” A cool, calm, and confident approach is ceratinly imperative when dealing with bereaved families, explains Phillip Kalmonowitz, Funeral Director. “On the one hand, it’s necessary to give the families a feeling of confidence and trust so that they are happy to hand over their precious deceased family member’s body to us, while on the other hand it’s essential to gather important information from them in order to proceed with all of the administration required.” Maintaining a friendly and positive face for the public is also paramount, says Braam Shevel, whose ten years at the Chev had been “the happiest of his working life”, despite the circumstances, all of which points to a deeper love and understanding of people which he possesses and feels is essential, especially in doing this important job during such a hard time. But being able to perform your duties to the deceased with the respect they deserve, says Carel van der Merwe, is “uplifting”, an “honour”. And above all, stresses Keith, it’s having people skills, and having the sensitivity for the family of the deceased, which is the strongest suit of the Chev’s undertakers – that, and a strong mind and body to handle whatever the job throws your way. Talking to people, and knowing when not to say anything but just lending an ear are, for newcomers Eddie Taitz and Neil Nathan, some of the skills that both have had to develop since starting to work at the Chev as misaskim, and there are some aspects that very few in the world will ever experience such as, relates Neil, being able to assist in the exhumation of a body after 20 years buried.

Helping when you can’t be thanked. Helping those who have lost their loved ones. It makes you feel needed in the community. “It’s always quite inspiring to assist community members and guide them in what is required, leading up to the burial and beyond. When family members are happy with the service offered, we always feel totally invigorated,” says Phillip. And that, these heroes all agree, is something special.

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