Trenton-area rabbi named to state cemetery board
After a three-and-a-half year campaign by New Jersey’s Jewish community, a rabbi has been appointed to the state’s Cemetery Board.
The confirmation of Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in West Windsor is considered the first concrete step in an effort to resolve objections by Jewish groups over the state’s regulation of cemeteries.
Critics say the public is under-represented on the board while half of its representatives are selected by the funeral industry itself. Rabbis and Jewish organizations have complained about billing practices as well as access to certain rituals.
Kornsgold was first nominated to the board in April 2008 by former Gov. Jon Corzine. He was officially confirmed by the State Senate in December.
“I see my role as oversight of all cemeteries, not just the Jewish cemeteries,” Kornsgold told NJJN. “I see my role as making sure that the public interest is being taken care of and that the cemeteries need to consider that.”
Kornsgold’s appointment was championed by another NJ rabbi whom he’s never met, Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park.
Engelmayer crusaded for industry reform as a member of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which he served as president from 2008 to 2010.
“We wanted a rabbi on the board because we wanted consideration of Jewish issues,” said Engelmayer. He noted that other faith communities face similar issues.
Until Kornsgold’s confirmation, only two of the board’s 10 seats were allocated to members of the public. Three others are filled by representatives of the state attorney general’s office, the department of health and senior services, and the office of community affairs commissioner — a seat that is currently vacant.
Jeff Lamm, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Cemetery Board, said he “did not know” why a member of the clergy was appointed to serve on the board. “I don’t have any background that could answer your question,” he told NJJN.
The state board regulates “non-religious” cemeteries, or those neither owned nor operated by a church or synagogue. Most Jewish cemeteries fall outside these criteria.
Engelmayer — who doubles as interim editor of The Jewish Standard in Teaneck — is troubled by the fact that five of the board’s 10 members represent the funeral industry.
“It’s the fox-in-the-henhouse syndrome,” he said. “In New Jersey there is no real oversight.”
One issue that particularly affects Jews, said Engelmayer, is that next-of-kin are billed a surcharge if a funeral procession is late arriving at a cemetery, and told that burial will not take place until the extra fee is paid.
“How many mourners do you imagine carry a checkbook with them when they go to bury a relative?” said Engelmayer. “I’ve had rabbis who have gone from car to car to car in a funeral procession asking if someone had a checkbook.”
One specifically Jewish concern is the practice of mourners stopping seven times to pray as a coffin is carried between a hearse and a gravesite.
“There are cemeteries which will not allow you to do this,” said Engelmayer. “They will use an excuse that ‘the unions will not allow it,’ but this is a Jewish custom. I don’t expect a Muslim or a Catholic to understand that; I expect a Jew to understand that.”
Kornsgold was initially asked to serve on the board by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis because of his location, near Trenton. In the years since, however, the cemetery board has relocated. When he attends his first meeting this month, it will be in Newark.
“I was not being tapped because of my expertise,” Kornsgold said. But, he said, he has “obviously officiated at a great many funerals” and wants to make sure that the funeral industry takes into consideration “that when people are using a cemetery they are going through a difficult time in their lives. I want to make sure that the public’s needs are being taken care of.”
Kornsgold majored in political science at Columbia University while he pursued his rabbinical studies at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. For two summers he worked in the office of Mayor Wilson Goode in his hometown of Philadelphia.
“Public service is something I have always been interested in from the time I was a young man,” he said. “I feel this is an opportunity to give back and to protect the public interest.”
Another major concern of Jewish leaders is the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. Many cemeteries charge extra fees for funerals performed on a Sunday or holiday.
A bill introduced in 2008 by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37) would bar fees beyond the actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another, which would require cemetery companies to file annual financial reports with the state, remains stalled.
“We are not out to punish the cemetery owners,” said Engelmayer. “Cemeteries have some legitimate problems, and one is that they have a finite product; there will come a time when they will run out of graves to sell. Yet they will have a responsibility in perpetuity to take care of the graves they have. They will need to have an income.”