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A Tale of Two Cities' Cemeteries: Embracing Change vs. Keeping the Law

Sidebar to After Death Do Us Part?

Dec. 31, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 31 (JTA)--When Larry Moskowitz took over the Har Jehuda cemetery 25 years ago, he changed the rules laid down by his uncle, father and grandfather.

None of them, operators of the Upper Darby, Pa., cemetery founded by the family in 1896, would allow non-Jewish burials.

"They took it to the hilt," Moskowitz said. "They'd talk to family members and on that horrible day. Some families left for that reason. There's no need for that."

The barrier began crumbling in the late 1960s and early '70s, when Moskowitz worked as a groundskeeper. Many more Jews were intermarrying.

"Those were wacky times, we really got hit by it," he recalled. "My uncle didn't know exactly what to do. Should we open a separate section?"

The uncle took his cue from local funeral directors: If they sent a body to be buried, it was buried, with few questions asked.

Today, Moskowitz welcomes non-Jewish relatives. No Christian symbols can be placed on the tombstone, although non-Jewish clergy may preside at the funeral, along with a rabbi or cantor.

Moskowitz believes he's serving a need. In December, a son at his mother's funeral pulled him aside, said he was married to a non-Jew and asked whether they could buy plots together. Moskowitz said yes, and the son ran under a tree to call his wife.

"He came back and said thank you," Moskowitz relates. "He was in his 20s, and until his mother died, he hadn't even thought about it. This meant the world to him."

Moskowitz is married to a non-Jew, but the decision had been made even before he met his wife. Those who want to be part of the Jewish community should not be turned away by a cemetery, he said.

Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz faces a different problem. An emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Lifshitz moved with his wife to Boise, Idaho, two years ago to do Jewish outreach work.

There is no Jewish cemetery in the state, he reports, just a Jewish section of Boise's municipal cemetery that follows Reform guidelines. That's not acceptable to him as an Orthodox Jew.

Lifshitz said it's a priority for him to raise money to open a Jewish cemetery that will operate according to Jewish law, meaning no burial of non-Jewish spouses.

Meanwhile, he has already sent four Jewish bodies out of state for burial. Some had family plots elsewhere.

One family wanted to use the public cemetery, but Lifshitz convinced them that it wasn't proper from a Jewish perspective. The family agreed to fly the body out of state for burial in a Jewish cemetery.

"I'm sure some people have hesitated to contact me for precisely that reason," he acknowledged. "They realize this is the only solution I will give them."

A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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