Cemeteries seek solutions for interfaith families

Cemeteries seek solutions for interfaith families

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Sidney Schlosser was president of the board of Beth Israel cemetery in Cedar Knolls when a young man died unexpectedly. His father was Jewish but his mother was not.

The family, members of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, wanted to bury him at Beth Israel. It was the early 1990s, a decade after the Reform movement had accepted as Jewish a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. But the cemetery, although affiliated with B’nai Or as well as two other area synagogues, is an entirely independent organization with a built-in requirement to follow Halacha, or traditional Jewish law.

“You have a day to make a decision. The board decided they didn’t have a place for him in the cemetery. It ripped my father’s guts,” recalled Schlosser’s daughter, Alise Ford of Mendham, is now the cemetery’s manager. “The young man was buried in a non-denominational cemetery, and it haunted my father for years that they couldn’t find a way to serve this family.”

According to Ford, the lack of a plan for non-Jewish family members drove Sidney Schlosser to find an area of the cemetery physically separated from the main cemetery by a driveway. It ultimately became the cemetery’s resting place for interfaith families.

With the intermarriage rate hovering around 50 percent nationally, that young man’s family’s predicament is shared by a growing number of people who want to be buried in Jewish cemeteries but may run into trouble when their wishes collide with Halacha.

“The Halacha is very clear,” said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of Richmond Hill, NY, president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, or Jewish burial societies. “Only members of the Jewish faith can be buried together.”

Nevertheless, non-Orthodox and non-denominational cemeteries have begun finding solutions for families with non-Jewish members.

Beth Israel is just one among a handful of cemeteries serving liberal communities — mostly Reform and Conservative — where sections have been created to include interfaith families. The cemetery serves the communities of Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael (Conservative), Temple B’nai Or (Reform), and Congregation B’nai Israel of Basking Ridge (Conservative).

Other cemeteries with accommodations for interfaith families include B’nai Abraham Memorial Park in Union; Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, which maintains a separate nonsectarian division known as Woodbridge Memorial Gardens; and Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Iselin which, like Beth Israel, also maintains a separate nonsectarian division known as Forest Lawn.

The Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey, a Reform congregation in Washington, recently announced that it is setting aside part of its section at the Easton Cemetery to accommodate interfaith families.

The plan includes a “clear separation” between the new section and the old, “which will remain strictly for Jewish internments,” according to a prepared statement from the synagogue.

“This has been done out of sensitivity to the desires and expectations of buried congregants and those desiring internment in an all-Jewish section,” congregation president Howard Hirsch explained in the statement. The change, he said, reflects “the changing demography of synagogue membership.”

Jewish burial policy is complicated by details of ownership and operation. There are for-profit and nonprofit cemeteries; cemeteries operated by synagogues or groups of synagogues; independent Jewish cemeteries; Jewish sections of nonsectarian cemeteries; and other permutations, each following their own policies, which vary across the denominations.

While Orthodox cemeteries strictly follow Jewish law, Reform cemeteries have allowed non-Jews to be buried next to their immediate Jewish relatives. Responsa from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella organization for Reform rabbis, dating back to 1914 have allowed this. Guidelines suggest that a non-Jewish service should not be used, and non-Jewish religious symbols on the tombstone should not be used. But there are no rigid rules, and practices may vary.

Conservative rabbis are guided by a 2010 teshuva, or legal directive, of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that allows for a special section for mixed burial, separated from the rest of the Jewish cemetery by a wall, shrubbery, or preferably a path.

The Conservative teshuva balanced tradition with sensitivity to non-Jews who nevertheless “are strongly connected to the Jewish community.”

“[W]e must be sensitive to their feelings and make them feel welcome in our communities,” the authors, Rabbis Kassel Abelson and Loel M. Weiss, wrote. “In addition, non-Jewish spouses and children who are involved in our synagogues, while not Jewish, are nevertheless part of our community…. We must respect those who have married Jews and have raised Jewish families and are connected to the Jewish community.”

The situation is becoming pressing.

“If our synagogues and official Jewish cemeteries don’t provide options, families will simply opt out,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. That could mean choosing a nonsectarian cemetery or one maintained by a different faith. Catholic cemeteries, for example, permit the burial of non-Catholic spouses and often are chosen by intermarried couples.

Jason Apter at J.L. Apter Memorial Chapels says he offers several options to a family if the spouse is not Jewish and if the deceased does not already have a plot. These include the Jewish cemeteries with separate sections, as well as Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Montclair and Restland Memorial Park in East Hanover, both non-sectarian cemeteries with many Jewish/interfaith burials.

Apter says his connection to the issue is personal and professional. Apter’s wife, Colleen, is not Jewish, although they are raising their three children as Jews — and they just celebrated the bar mitzva of their eldest. So far, despite his ties to Jewish cemeteries and traditions, Apter and his wife have chosen the nonsectarian Restland Memorial Park for when the time comes.

It’s strictly a question of aesthetics, he said. “We just like the design of the cemetery,” he said.

But it’s not necessarily their final decision.

“It’s not that we don’t like Jewish cemeteries,” he said. “We just haven’t found one with an interfaith section that appeals to us.”

Sue Fishkoff contributed to this story.

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