Ahavas Chesed Society

Pnina Glassman, President of the Ahavas Chesed Society board. Photo: Kristi Foster

Mike Sherwin

It is difficult to imagine a group that better exemplifies being truly “Unsung” than the Ahavas Chesed Society. Volunteers prepare the dead for burial according to Jewish law – receiving neither compensation, nor commendation from those they serve.

Pnina Glassman, President of Ahavas Chesed Society, said although the group’s numbers vary from year to year, approximately 50 to 60 volunteers from the Orthodox community – about half of whom serve on a regular basis – perform taharas.

“Tahara means ‘pure, to purify,'” said Glassman, who lives in University City with her husband, attorney Stephen Glassman. “We wash the body and we dress the body in shrouds. There are prayers said… We put them in a casket and we get them ready for burial. When we finish, they are ready for a funeral.”

Glassman said the local Jewish funeral homes, Berger Memorial and Rinskopf-Roth, will contact the society. Then, teams of volunteers of women or men – matching the gender of the deceased – will gather to perform the tahara, readying the body for burial.

“We’re all volunteers – women who may be professional women, mothers, wives of rabbis, young, old. It really varies,” said Glassman. “Professional women typically work around 7 a.m., before work; women with children often work around 9 [a.m.], after they drop their children off at school.”

Groups of men typically work at 6:30 a.m., she notes.

On the day we talked, Glassman said she had returned that morning from a tahara. The society typically performs around 20 per month – although sometimes there will be as many as three or four in a day.

In many cities with larger Jewish communities, the burial society will have teams of volunteers who are committed to a particular day of the week.

“Here we don’t have that kind of manpower,” said Glassman. “We wish we had more people doing them, but thank God it always works out.”

Although the society, which is under the auspices of the Va’ad Hoeir, comprises volunteers from the Orthodox community, the group performs taharas for Jews of all backgrounds.

“The Orthodox community is really a small part of what we do, since the Orthodox community is so much smaller,” said Glassman.

Many cemeteries’ bylaws require a tahara and the tachrichim, or burial shrouds.

Glassman became involved in the Ahavas Chesed Society around 15 years ago.

In her hometown of Cleveland, many of Glassman’s family members were involved in the Chevra Kadisha (a traditional name for Jewish burial societies). However, with the city’s larger Orthodox community, the need for volunteers was not as great – and her time was limited with young children at home.

A few years after moving to St. Louis, a friend’s grandmother passed away – and Glassman decided the time was right.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to,” said Glassman. “To think that you’re handling a person that’s no longer living is a difficult thing. It’s interesting – a lot of people don’t really know if they can do it, or are convinced they would never be able to do it. But once they do, they find it is doable.”

Rabbi Yosef Landa, chairperson of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council representing Orthodox rabbis in the area, said the Ahavas Chesed Society is “no doubt among the ‘unsung heroes’ of our community.

“The Rabbinical Council has the highest regard for the volunteers of the Ahavas Chesed Society. Their dedication and commitment as they regularly and discreetly perform their ‘kindness of truth’ in a most dignified and respectful manner is truly exemplary. They are deserving of our profound admiration and gratitude.”

Ahavas Chesed Society

WHAT: Volunteers prepare the dead for burial under Jewish law, performing tahara, or ritual cleansing and dressing the body in tachrichim, burial shrouds

WHO: A group of 50 to 60 volunteers from the Orthodox community