NEW YORK, March 13 (JTA) – In what is believed to be a first in the United States, a coalition of New York philanthropists and Jewish institutions has teamed up to create a nonprofit Jewish funeral home.
A Jewish federation, Jewish community center and multidenominational group of rabbis has purchased Plaza Memorial Funeral Chapel, a funeral home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was previously owned by a multinational corporation.
Those behind the venture say it will reduce funeral prices, promote traditional Jewish practices and help connect mourners to bereavement counseling and other support.
The new home, to be renamed Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, opens at a time when the vast majority of Jewish funeral homes in the United States are run on a for-profit basis, with an increasing number purchased in recent years by two multinational corporations: Service Corporation International and the Loewen Group.
Those corporations, as well as many independent for-profit funeral homes, have been accused of price gouging and promoting expensive funeral items – such as flowers, fancy coffins and embalming – not associated with traditional Jewish practice.
The two companies could not be reached for comment.
The Plaza purchase comes in the wake of much criticism – including a scathing report from the New York City department of consumer affairs and a lawsuit – against SCI. SCI is the former owner of Plaza and owns numerous Jewish funeral homes in New York City.
In a recent out-of-court settlement, New York’s attorney general, Elliot Spitzer, ordered the Houston-based SCI to sell three of its New York homes.
In an official statement, Spitzer charged SCI with “monopolistic practices that reduced competition in the New York market,” and accused it of charging 30 percent to 40 percent more than some independent funeral homes.
Several cities – such as San Francisco, Detroit and Minneapolis – have nonprofit Jewish funeral homes, but Plaza is believed to be the first one created by a community-wide cast of players.
The 14,000-square-foot Plaza was purchased for $2.7 million with money from the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, New York’s Jewish Communal Fund and interest-free loans from eight philanthropists. It will be governed by a board of directors composed of local rabbis of all denominations, congregational lay leaders, heads of Jewish social service agencies, community philanthropists and heads of major Jewish communal organizations.
Plaza will be managed by a longtime funeral director, Andrew Fier, who worked at Plaza when it was owned by SCI and has run family-owned Jewish funeral homes in the past.
It is not yet clear how many funerals the Plaza will be able to accommodate per week, though those involved say they hope it will become the funeral home of choice for Manhattan Jews.
While its backers agree that Plaza should not promote non-Jewish practices like cremation, embalming, flowers and expensive coffins, they have yet to determine whether Plaza will accommodate requests for such services. Another question is whether the new funeral home will coordinate its own chevra kedisha, the group of volunteers charged with cleaning corpses in accord with Jewish tradition.
Larry Zicklin, chairman of the board of the new funeral home and president-elect of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, said that, when his cousin died a few months ago, the funeral at a privately owned home cost $14,000.
“There were a million charges and extra charges,” he said. “People are in a very vulnerable stage when planning a funeral; they’re not thinking properly and not in a stage to negotiate. There ought to be a competitor in the market for a simple, dignified Jewish funeral according to custom.”
Many funeral homes, Zicklin said, show expensive caskets, and “you’re almost put in a position where you’re embarrassed to choose a simple casket.”
In addition to offering lower prices than for-profit funeral homes, Plaza will offer several bereavement groups and will actively connect mourners with services available through Jewish agencies, said Debbie Hirschman, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side.
Hirschman said she hopes to see Plaza coordinate bereavement-related internships for rabbinical students of all denominations and offer rabbinic counseling to unaffiliated families.
Fier, Plaza’s new director, said Plaza’s mission is “to be more sensitive to the needs of people and be part of the whole grieving process.”
“When we’re up full steam we will be connected with social service agencies and bereavement groups,” he said. “That’s something commercial” homes “don’t do. I know that, because I didn’t do that before.”
Among the factors spurring the Plaza purchase were regular, JCC-hosted rabbinic meetings where participants expressed concern about the high prices and pressure tactics of local funeral services.
“The important thing here is that the bottom line, so to speak, is not the profit of the investors or stockholders, not the business of profits, but rather to serve the community in the ways of Jewish tradition,” said Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Matalon was among the rabbis that was a driving force behind the decision to form a nonprofit home.
Matalon said the new funeral home will create an opportunity for various congregations and Jewish institutions to work together. In addition to offering cheaper funerals, it will provide free or reduced-cost funerals for Jews who can’t afford them, he said.