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Grave Challenges: Jewish Synagogue Policies Vary on Burying Interfaith Couples

Reprinted with permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.

Feb. 26, 2007

For the past 37 years, "Sherry" and "John" (not their real names) have enjoyed their family membership in a Conservative synagogue. Their two children attended the synagogue's religious school, and the couple is frequently asked to donate time and funds to synagogue activities.

John is known as a mensch for his volunteer work, and he has been invited to participate in the synagogue's men's club activities. When his mother passed away, condolences were announced in the synagogue bulletin.

But John is not Jewish. Nor does he plan to convert. Sherry, who is Jewish, has two family plots in a Jewish cemetery left to her by her parents. She fears that when she passes away, if she uses one of the plots, her beloved husband will not be buried at her side.

Sherry's and John's fears are not unique. Intermarriages are an increasing trend in American Jewish life. According to the United Jewish Communities' 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, almost 47% of newly married Jews married non-Jews. (In Cleveland that figure is less, but no exact figure is available).

Sherry and John are now looking into a separate section at Hillcrest Memorial Park and Zion Memorial Park in Bedford that would allow them to be buried next to each other.

But even that burial ground comes with some restrictions.

"If non-Jewish spouses are active in their church and desire a Christian burial service, with an attending clergy person from their church, that is not allowed in any Jewish cemetery in Cleveland," says funeral director Bart Bookatz of Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel. "Nor is any Christian marking permitted on the gravestone."

On the other hand, "if non-Jewish spouses no longer practice or identify with their religion and agree to a Jewish burial, there are some options allowing burial in a Jewish cemetery."

A local Conservative rabbi who requests anonymity explains why allowances can be made. "The Talmud mentions a group of non-Jews who lived among the Jews, called 'God Fearers' or 'Righteous Gentiles,'" he says. "Though not Jewish, these groups were monotheistic. They identified and were familiar with Jewish community life and practices. They were accorded certain rights in the Jewish world normally reserved for Jews.

"According to some opinions, this historical precedent is sufficient to provide latitude to rabbis and cemeteries in responding to family circumstances at the time of Jewish burial," adds the rabbi.

Many Conservative rabbis are asking the Conservative Law Committee for clearer guidance in the area of non-Jewish burials. According to a recent JTA article, Rabbi Kassel Abelson, the committee's chairman, says he is working on a new Conservative teshuvah (legal decision) that will be more permissive with respect to burial of non-Jewish spouses and their offspring.

"The situation will only grow more pressing," Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, told JTA. "If it's not at critical proportions, it soon will be, especially in the liberal movements. One-third of the Reform community is intermarried.

"If our synagogues and official Jewish cemeteries don't provide options, families will simply opt out. That means choosing a non-sectarian cemetery or one maintained by a different faith."

Members of congregation Bethaynu (Conservative) who are married to non-Jewish spouses cannot currently be buried at synagogue plots at Mt. Olive cemetery, but they can make arrangements down the road at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery or at Zion.

"We understand our burial policy can bring sadness to a Jewish family member in an interfaith marriage," says Elisabeth Raiffe, Bethaynu executive director. "We have to follow traditional guidelines. Of course, if there were new, permissive guidelines issued from the Conservative movement we might consider implementing them."

For Orthodox Jews, the concept of burying non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries, is a "non-issue," says Rabbi Daniel Neustadt, associate rabbi of Young Israel of Greater Cleveland. "You cannot bury a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery," he says flatly. "Just as a non-Jew should not belong to a synagogue or be a partner in a Jewish marriage, that individual does not belong in a Jewish cemetery. It's that simple."

At Suburban Temple-Kol Ami (Reform), executive director Loree Resnik says interfaith couples who are congregants can be buried side-by-side in the synagogue's section at Lake View Cemetery.

"This goes along with our policy of inclusiveness within our membership," she says. "But a non-Jewish person's tombstone cannot bear a Christian symbol, and non-Jewish clergy cannot officiate."

The burial service of non-Jewish family members is determined by the survivors, explains Suburban Temple's rabbi Eric Bram. "I talk to the mourners and ask them to decide what would be helpful as they begin their grieving process," he says. "If they want a Jewish service for the non-Jewish family member, I will perform one; or I will leave out certain elements that might be problematic for the family."

Rabbi Matt Eisenberg of Temple Israel Ner Tamid (Reform) says at interfaith burials a non-Jewish service is not allowed, but it is permissible for non-Jewish mourners to give a eulogy at graveside or in the funeral chapel.

Two other Reform congregations, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and The Temple-Tifereth Israel, have burial plots at Mayfield Cemetery. Both synagogues bury interfaith couples side by side in their synagogues' designated sections. "We do not have a separate area for interfaith couples," says Rabbi Rosie Haim of The Temple.

"Usually, when younger interfaith couples join our synagogue, burial rights are the last thing on their minds, but we mention this to them for future reassurance," notes Shea Waldron, Fairmount Temple's executive director. "No family member should be surprised at a time when they are most vulnerable."

The burial policy at Temple Emanu El (Reform) is that a non-Jewish spouse of a Jewish member, or their unmarried children up to age 26, can be buried in the Temple Emanu El section of Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland's cemeteries do not determine burial rights based on a person's religion.

"We firmly believe that families should stay together," says Joe Smith, director of marketing and family services for all of Cleveland's Catholic cemeteries. "We all worship the same God; we just worship Him in different ways. People of all faiths are allowed to be buried in our cemeteries."

During the 40 years that Stuart Berkowitz, president of Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel, has been in the funeral business, he has seen many changes, and he anticipates more to come in the 700 funerals his chapel conducts yearly n particularly regarding cremation.

"Even though Cleveland is very conservative in relation to the rest of the country, the number of Jewish cremations here has steadily increased," he notes. Cremated remains are permitted at Hillcrest, Zion, Lake View and Mayfield Cemeteries.

Other cities such as Pittsburgh, Boston and Phoenix are actively addressing the issue of interfaith burials. Their Jewish communities have created special sections of existing Jewish cemeteries to accommodate both Reform and Conservative interfaith burials. "They realize the time of grieving is meant to focus on loss, not logistics," says Olitzky.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. 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. Hebrew term, synonymous with Jerusalem.

Arlene Fine is a senior staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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