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Holy society aids fallen Jewish soldiers

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WILMINGTON, Del. — A framed military poster hangs on the wall of Rabbi Sanford L. Dresin's office in Wilmington's Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth synagogue. He is one of four chaplains pictured in a crowd of soldiers, all in battle dress.

Rabbi Dresin's ministry, which included 26 years as an active-duty Army chaplain, now has a unique national dimension.

He and other members of Delaware's Jewish community have offered their services to the families of fallen Jewish soldiers, providing ritual preparation of the body for burial in accordance with the traditions of their faith.

Nearly all U.S. casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan come to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base first to be processed and prepared before they are returned to their hometowns for burial.

If a Jewish family requests that a loved one receive the traditional Jewish preparation, Rabbi Dresin and the volunteer members of Delaware's Chevra Kadisha respond.

Chevra Kadisha is an Aramaic term that means holy society. The group's ministry includes washing and purification of the body, dressing it in a white linen shroud, providing a prayer shawl, and reading Psalms and prayers over the body until it is transferred or buried.

"Traditional Judaism opposes cremation and believes that even after death the body is an object to be revered and respected," Rabbi Dresin said. "It goes beyond hygiene to a way of elevating something, recognizing the intrinsic sanctity or restoring the intrinsic sanctity. It takes a special person to do this with great sensitivity."

Jewish respect for the body is comprehensive. When limbs are severed, they are recovered when possible and buried with the body. Where blood is shed, it, too, is recovered to be buried with the body. That sometimes means burying a uniform with a soldier or even collecting soil upon which his or her blood flowed.

"Even though the person is no longer alive, the body was the vessel, the enabler that allowed us to perform the commandments and observe God's word and so forth," Rabbi Dresin said.

On Nov. 16, Rabbi Dresin and two members of Delaware's Chevra Kadisha, Stephen Michlin and Mark Delmerico, drove from Wilmington to Dover to provide the service for an Army private from New York who was killed in Iraq.

Not every Jewish family follows tradition, Rabbi Dresin said. And the ritual is only performed at the request of the service member's family.

"People ask me how do I do my job?" said Michlin, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. "How do I handle it? I'm doing a good deed for the deceased and for the family. . . . Then, on top of that, you're doing it for a military person. It makes you feel even better that you can help."

The mission of the Chevra Kadisha is to enable Jews to observe the traditions of their faith with dignity and respect.

Only men may prepare the bodies of men, and only women may prepare the bodies of women, Rabbi Dresin said. Often, volunteers come from medical or emergency professions.

Their work is considered "chesed shel emet," a true act of kindness, Rabbi Dresin said, because the beneficiary cannot reciprocate. Volunteers stay with the body 24 hours a day until it is buried or transferred.

Delmerico, who converted to Judaism in 1997, is an emergency manager for Delaware Health and Social Services. He was taking a class at Dover Air Force Base in 1996 when Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia was bombed. The mortuary staff needed help dealing with casualties, and he agreed to assist.

Because he was familiar and comfortable with the process, he later volunteered to serve with the Chevra Kadisha.

"It's an important facet of Judaism, and it's very necessary," he said. "It's something that needs to be done in the community, something I'm comfortable doing and able to do."

Prayers are read, Rabbi Dresin said, and it is customary to place some soil from Israel in the casket — a symbol, he said, of the Jews' belief that ultimately they will be resurrected in the land of Israel.

In Dover, Rabbi Dresin added one additional component to his service for the fallen soldier.

When they started to close the casket of the young private, the rabbi, who retired as the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Army, stood at attention and saluted.

"If he were alive, he would be saluting me," Rabbi Dresin said. "But I wanted to honor him for having given his life for his country."