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No Longer "Until Death Do Us Part" as Intermarried Are Buried Together

 

REGINA, Saskatchewan, Aug. 28 (JTA)--On a patch of green land in this Canadian province, a wrought-iron gate stands at the entrance to a new cemetery, the words "Dedicated to the partnership of love and faith" inscribed on its doorway.

The Cemeteries, as the burial ground is known, is the brainchild of Noel Sandomirsky, a federal court judge who is a lifelong member of the 100-year-old Beth Jacob Synagogue and the chairman of its chevra kadisha, or burial society.

What sets the two-month-old burial ground apart is its purpose: The Cemeteries is meant for Jews wishing to be buried next to their non-Jewish spouses, something not ordinarily allowed under Jewish law.

Sandomirsky, 63, is married to a convert. In addition, Beth Jacob's spiritual leader of eight years, the yet-to-be-ordained Jeremy Parnes, has a non-Jewish partner. In fact, most of the 700 Jews remaining in the once-thriving Regina community--roughly 400 of whom belong to the unaffiliated but largely Conservative Beth Jacob--are tolerant of interfaith relationships.

Sandomirsky recalls a vibrant, healthy Jewish population in the Regina of his youth--many young Jews met and married through the B'nai Brith Youth Organization. Now, however, there are only about 15 children in the community who will attend Beth Jacob's Hebrew school this year.

"I realized some time ago that the sphere of assimilation and how we deal with that historically involved religions that tend to excommunicate those who fall in love outside their faith," Sandomirsky says. "That's a high price to pay for falling in love. We should encourage these people to stay within the faith, creating a counterbalance to assimilation and the danger of losing people."

Sandomirsky decided to apply this concept to death as well. He looked into halakha, or Jewish religious law, and sought out the possibilities for such an arrangement. The Cemeteries is the result.

Separated from other Jewish burial grounds on the property by greenery, trees, shrubs and a large entrance gate, the Cemeteries comprises 42 plots in three rows of 14 each, enough to last the community for quite some time.

The odd-numbered grave sites are reserved for Jewish members of the synagogue, the even-numbered ones for non-Jews. Between each of the rows is a steel post laid into a cement block. A small, stainless-steel link chain is inserted between each post, creating an 18-inch-high barrier. That'' not too high to impede visitors wishing to pay their respects to a deceased couple, while it does create the barrier required by Jewish law, Sandomirsky says. To the judge in him, it appears to be a fair and appropriate solution.

"After a lifetime together, the couple should have the privilege--indeed, the right--of being buried side by side," he says.

Rabbi Alan Bright, the spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Shaare Zedek of Montreal, said the concept sounds acceptable to him.

"I have no problem with the theory as long as there is a barrier, and it does not have to obscure the view," Bright says. "As long as there is a barrier, burying a Jew next to a non-Jew is permissible according to halakha."

In small European Jewish communities, he says, the situation of Jews being buried in close proximity to non-Jews arose all the time. In the Montreal suburb Beaconsfield, he notes, "we have a row of trees that acts as a natural barrier between the Jewish and non-Jewish portions of the cemetery."

Sandomirsky says that some older and more traditional members of the community objected when the idea was first proposed but their concerns were assuaged through dialogue.

"When the rubber hit the pavement this past summer, there was no opposition at all," he says. So far, the idea is proving popular.

"We've already had three couples purchase plots in the first two months of operation. And I've also had inquiries from Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Jeremy"--all in the province of Saskatchewan--and Winnipeg in Manitoba, Sandomirsky says.

He adds that he's not aware of similar arrangements elsewhere.

"I have visited a number of cemeteries over the years, and I have never come upon anything like this," Sandomirsky says. "I didn't base the idea on an existing place''--just on the idea of eternal love.

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 "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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.
Bram Eisenthal

Bram Eisenthal is a career freelance writer and publicist, currently handling communications for Canada's oldest traditional synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. He has been JTA's Montreal correspondent since 1990.

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