LOS ANGELES (Jan. 5)
The director of the local Chevra Kadisha Mortuary has been sentenced to two years in prison and the facility has been temporarily closed.
Zalman Manela, the founder of the 21-year-old mortuary, was incarcerated after pleading no contest to charges of forgery and grand theft.
According to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Manela, 49, admitted stealing thousands of dollars from a deceased woman, Celia Klein.
Manela said he took the money to pay for Klein’s funeral and to donate funds in her memory to a charity.
The mortuary, though a religious, non-profit organization, was not a true “chevra kadisha,” in the sense of providing a corps of volunteers who perform “taharah,” the ritual care of the dead.
Unlike many other cities, Los Angeles does not have a volunteer, community-run chevra kadisha, and Manela’s mortuary was among the few in town run by Orthodox Jews strictly according to halachah, or Jewish law.
In a written statement to the sentencing judge, Manela recounted that he was visited by Klein’s caregiver, Carina Cabellero, who had found the mortuary’s card among her employer’s belongings after the elderly woman died.
Manela believed that Klein had no heirs, he wrote, and presumed she would have wanted her estate to go to charity, rather than to the state. He also wanted to compensate Cabellero for her lengthy care of Klein.
Subsequently, Manela and Cabellero forged documents giving Manela power of attorney for Klein’s estate. They told bank employees that Klein was alive and withdrew some $55,000 from her accounts, according to Manela’s attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr.
Manela used his share of the money to pay for Klein’s funeral and put the rest into a charitable account, Mesereau said. Manela, who was arrested at Klein’s bank as he was trying to withdraw additional funds, confessed immediately. He has made full restitution, according to his lawyer.
About 60 observant Jews, including some Orthodox rabbis, attended the sentencing hearing, the Jewish Journal reported. Many pleaded for Manela, testifying that he had frequently provided free funerals and donated generously to charities.
A hearing has been set for Jan. 26 before an administrative law judge to determine whether the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary will be permanently closed or allowed to reopen.