Cover Story

The Holiest Work

A memorial at the site of the Nova Music Festival in southern Israel honoring the memory of the roughly 400 victims of the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7. Photo: Yehoshua Halevi


A Conversation with Miriam Neumark Shalev of the IDF Chevra Kadisha’s Women’s Unit

October 7 will forever be known as a day of infamy for Jews. The atrocities wrought on our brethren are still too horrific to contemplate, as is the fact that over 125 hostages remain in captivity as we go to press. Yet we Jews, in our age-old response to calamity, stepped up to help Acheinu Bnei Yisrael. One prominent example is the Israel Defense Forces’ chevra kadisha, which operates under the most challenging of circumstances. Lesser-known but as compelling is the Metaplot HaChalalot (chalalah is a fallen female soldier), the IDF chevra kadisha’s women’s unit, which functions under the IDF Rabbinate.

Miriam Neumark Shalev, an early childhood educator, heads the Tziporit military base’s chevra kadisha unit for women, where she, among others, is responsible for preparing the bodies of fallen female soldiers for Jewish burial. In the aftermath of October 7, she sat down with Jewish Action writer Leah Lightman to give us an inside look at the holy work of the Metaplot HaChalalot. 

Leah R. Lightman: How did you get involved in working with the IDF’s chevra kadisha?

Miriam Neumark Shalev: My husband and I married in 1979 and came on aliyah from New York half a year later. Shortly thereafter, we were part of the founding community of Hoshaya, a small community in northern central Israel, where we still live today.  

Around twenty-five years ago, a member of our community was very ill; we knew he was dying. A few of us got together and set up a local chevra kadisha. That’s how I got involved with the chevra kadisha in Hoshaya.

Tziporit is one of two military bases in Israel responsible for caring for fallen soldiers. [Tziporit is often referred to as “the chevra kadisha of the North.”] The other base, Shura, located in central Israel near Ramle, serves as the home of the IDF Rabbinate.

Because of my affiliation with the local chevra kadisha, four years ago one of the officers at the Tziporit military base asked me to establish a women’s chevra kadisha unit that would serve the northern communities if and when, G-d forbid, female soldiers are killed in service. 

LL: Is having a women’s chevra kadisha under the auspices of the IDF Rabbinate a new development?

MS: Whenever a soldier, male or female, is killed, the IDF Rabbinate oversees the identification and burial of that soldier. 

In the past, when a female soldier would be killed in service, female volunteers from around the country, who worked for the chevrot kadisha in their communities, would be called upon to assist the army professionals in the preparation for burial. As more women have been entering combat units, the IDF Rabbinate established a unit in which women would be trained to assist in the identification process and burial preparation for a female fallen soldier. 

Sharon Laufer, an American olah who lives in Efrat, was involved in recruiting the women for the IDF chevra kadisha at the Shura army base. As a result of her work, most of us were officially drafted this past July; what that means is, we are no longer considered volunteers for the IDF Rabbinate but soldiers serving in the reserves. 

It took us time to create the Tziporit group. I didn’t want it to be comprised of women only from Hoshaya; Tziporit is a base that serves all the northern soldiers, and we believe that this chevra kadisha should reflect the diverse communities. Currently, our group consists of fifteen women from six communities throughout northern Israel. 

To form this volunteer group, I turned to the heads of each of the local women’s chevrot kadisha and asked for experienced volunteers. Because we deal with traumatic cases, I preferred that the women be experienced in such work and not be doing a taharah for the first time. 

LL: Can you describe how this chevra kadisha differs from a usual one?

MS: Ours is not a “typical” chevra kadisha. 

Due to the devastation of war or a terror attack, it can be difficult to identify the body of a fallen soldier. During the identification process, certain details have to be marked down to make sure the identification is exact. (The army uses fingerprint identification, dental records and DNA identification.) 

Even though the identification process requires the involvement of soldiers, doctors and forensic scientists, our job is to ensure the tzeniut of the soldier. We prefer to have no males in the room unless absolutely necessary. We prefer to have a female doctor in the room if there’s a female doctor on call. We are also learning the computer system so that a male soldier will not be needed for that. Out of respect, when male soldiers are assisting with the computer, they stand with their backs to the table where the deceased is lying. 

Once an identity is confirmed, the families are notified, and then we prepare the body for burial.

LL: What is the typical profile of a woman who volunteers for the IDF chevra kadisha?

MS: There is no typical profile. Our unit consists of every type of Jew: Israelis, Anglos, those born religious and ba’alei teshuvah. They are all amazing women—amazing in terms of their devotion, their discretion and their love for their fellow Jew. We have developed a fabulous team, and we know we can count on one another. 

Volunteering for the chevra kadisha—which is a chesed shel emet—is something one often learns from his or her family. A good number of women serving as volunteers have parents and grandparents who also volunteered for such work. My grandmother was a volunteer for the chevra kadisha. My sister heads the chevra kadisha in her community. My brother, sister-in-law and my brother-in-law are all volunteers in their communities. My husband and oldest son serve as volunteers in the chevra kadisha as well.

I’m a devoted mother and grandmother, but when I’m called to do work for the chevra kadisha, that’s my first line of duty. This was certainly the case after October 7. 

LL: Can you share with us how October 7 unfolded for you? 

MS: Early in the morning on October 7, we started seeing IDF soldiers leaving Hoshaya on foot and by car. I had gone out for a walk and was puzzled [seeing all the soldiers leave]: I needed to get information about what was going on. I came home and my husband told me that the house phone rang and because of the unusual activity going on, he answered it. It was a soldier from the Tziporit army base saying that after Shabbat, I had to come down and get our volunteers organized. I was on call.

After the chag ended that night, I drove to the base and only then did I understand the full extent of what was happening. My colleagues in the chevra kadisha and I knew we would be needed. Together, we mapped out a plan.

After a few days, I saw that Tziporit was quiet, and we were told that there were dozens of chalalot at Shura. Because of Shura’s geographic proximity to the Gaza Envelope, it handled most of the bodies. The center is large, but they could never have predicted a catastrophe on this level. 

I’m a devoted mother and grandmother, but when I’m called to do work for the chevra kadisha, that’s my first line of duty. This was certainly the case after October 7. 

At Shura, teams of medical examiners, doctors and rabbis worked quickly and diligently to identify the bodies of the women, both soldiers and civilians, who were murdered down south. The Shura women’s chevra kadisha unit was called into action and worked eight-to-twelve-hour shifts.

I called the woman who is my counterpart at Shura and said, “Why don’t we come and help you?” We went down several times to Shura in those first two weeks to prepare the female victims and bring them to proper Jewish burial. 

LL: How does the taharah process for a person who dies al kiddush Hashem, such as a chayal, chayelet or terror/war victim, differ from the typical process?

MS: One who dies al kiddush Hashem does not undergo the usual taharah, the purification process in which the body is washed and cleansed before burial. Because the individual died in such a way, they are already kadosh, holy. They do not require any further purification as their death alone has sanctified them. So we don’t call it a taharah. We call it a preparation for burial. 

We do not do taharah, we want the body to go to G-d [as if to say,] “Look what happened. Look what happened to this soldier who died al kiddush Hashem.” We bury her with her clothes—at times we dress the soldier with tachrichim (white shrouds) and at times we just place the tachrichim on the body.

Those who die al kiddush Hashem have an exalted place in Heaven, according to the Gemara in Bava Batra. 

Throughout the preparation for burial, we assure the highest standards of tzeniut and kavod hameit. We have a tradition that before we start, we stand together, and if one of us knew the person or heard about her on the news, we say a few words about her. 

Throughout the process, we recite pesukim from Tehillim. We ask for mechilah in case we did not show proper respect, and express our hope that we have done our best to help this precious human being take leave of this world and go on to the next one. We do our work out of love for the female soldiers and feel that we have a tremendous zechut to send a soldier off, as we are the last people with her in this world. 

It is a huge responsibility. 

LL: Your group meets primarily under emergency circumstances. How do you form a unit, especially when there’s no extraneous talk in the taharah room? 

MS: Pre-October 7, our unit got together maybe twice a year, primarily for drills. We never interacted with the Shura unit. Since October 7, the two units of the Metaplot HaChalalot (Shura and Tziporit) have gotten together once or twice. We’ve gotten to know one another, and we’ve learned from one another. 

Currently, one of our goals is to organize a day of learning and training for women of the IDF chevra kadisha. We don’t want the sessions to only address practical techniques and halachot, but to provide a spiritual boost to give us strength to continue doing what we’re doing. 

LL: How do you cope with the stress of dealing with such traumatic cases?

MS: All of the IDF units provide a trained mental health professional, in Hebrew referred to as a kaban, who works with soldiers. Each time we—the four or five women on a particular case—prepare a body for burial, we meet on Zoom with our kaban. (We purposely use a female kaban.) This gives us an opportunity to express our feelings, which is of the utmost importance. I know what some of the women in the chevra kadisha in Shura went through, and I was glad to hear that they were treated to a two-day mental health retreat. Mental health is one area we want to more fully address when we arrange a day of learning. 

Our chevra kadisha in Hodaya has adopted a tradition. Whenever we do a taharah, the few of us involved meet together afterward to do a debrief of our experience. Even if the taharah isn’t especially traumatic, we know that we are there for each other. It’s a way of taking care of ourselves. We started this practice with the women in Tziporit.

The stories and pictures of these courageous women stay with us. Over time we learn to find the balance of holding on to them and letting go. This is the only way we can continue to do what is expected of us.

LL: Do you have a final message for our readers?

MS: After October 7, talking about the chevra kadisha is not something that comes easy to any of us. The reason to talk about it at this time is to ensure that people know about the atrocities committed against so many of the fallen female soldiers and civilians. The world must know what was done to our people. 

While it was extremely difficult to see some of the things I saw, I derive strength to continue doing what I’m doing because I feel that through my work in the chevra kadisha I can have an impact. Being part of the IDF chevra kadisha is my way of contributing during this difficult time. 

There is always, of course, davening. This especially strengthens me in my work with the chevra kadisha. As we say in Tehillim 121: “Ezri meiim Hashem, Oseh Shamayim va’aretz—My help comes from Hashem, Maker of Heaven and earth.” Our work is a rare moment when we feel spiritually connected to both Heaven and earth in the service of Hashem. 

Leah R. Lightman is a freelance writer living in Lawrence, New York, with her family.

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Questions from the Battlefield: Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin speaks with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

On the Frontlines with Rabbi Shlomo Sobol, as told to JA staff

A Different Kind of Battlefield by Carol Green Ungar

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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