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A Difficult Time Becomes Harder: Intermarrieds Seek Burial Options


Rob Berman didn’t know where to bury his 51-year-old wife, Kathleen, when she died suddenly in September 2005.

Berman is Jewish and the Newton, Mass., couple raised their three children as Jews, but his Catholic wife never converted.

When they married 25 years ago, Berman already had a plot in a nearby Jewish cemetery, but it did not accept non-Jews. So the couple avoided the issue.

“We were 28 and going to live forever,” Berman said.

Suddenly he was at a loss.

“You’re trying to think clearly on the day your spouse dies at a time when you can’t be rational,” he said.

Berman visited the city cemetery, but felt “something was missing.” He wanted a Jewish space for Kathleen to mark the Jewish life they led together.

Then he heard about Beit Olam, which opened near Boston in 1999 to serve Conservative, Reform and interfaith families.

Developed by 16 synagogues, the three-acre grounds are divided into sections separated by the space required by Jewish law to delineate consecrated from non-consecrated ground. Only rabbis may officiate, only Jewish symbols are permitted on the headstones, and the cemetery is closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

“It allows the interfaith community to embrace Jewish life and Jewish afterlife,” founder and president Stanley Kaplan said.

That fit Berman’s needs.

“When I walked in, there was something important to me about her being in an area with other mixed marriages,” he said. “The names of the Jews and non-Jews on the graves — it was comforting.”

Berman bought two plots, “so I’ll be there, too.”

With the intermarriage rate approaching 50 percent nationally, the Bermans’ predicament is shared by a growing number of couples: After raising Jewish children and building Jewish homes, they want to remain together in death. But that can’t happen in a Jewish cemetery that follows halachah, or Jewish law.

“The halachah is very clear,” said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, head of the chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, of Queens, N.Y. “Only members of the Jewish faith can be buried together.”

Jewish burial policy is complicated by details of ownership and operation. There are for-profit and nonprofit cemeteries; cemeteries operated by synagogues or groups of synagogues; independent Jewish cemeteries; Jewish sections of nonsectarian cemeteries; and other permutations, each following their own policies, which vary across the denominations.

While Orthodox-controlled cemeteries strictly follow Jewish law, Reform cemeteries will bury non-Jews next to their immediate Jewish relatives. A non-Jewish service cannot be used, and non-Jewish religious symbols on the tombstone are not allowed.

Conservative rabbis are guided by a 1991 teshuvah, or responsum, of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that states Jews may not be buried next to non-Jews, but if it happens, that does not invalidate the cemetery’s Jewish status.

This is relevant to the growing number of cemeteries shared by Conservative and Reform congregations, since the Reform will bury non-Jews and patrilineal Jews, who are not considered Jewish by the Conservative movement. Conservative Jews may use such cemeteries, the teshuvah concludes.

The ruling leaves much discretion to individual rabbis. Many are asking the committee for clearer guidance, said committee Chairman Rabbi Kassel Abelson. He is working on a new Conservative teshuvah “that will be more permissive.”

That can’t come soon enough for many in the field.

Martin Birnbaum, president of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America, said most Jewish cemeteries do not permit burial of non-Jews.

“Conservative cemeteries will accept cremains faster than a non-Jew,” he said, referring to the Jewish prohibition on cremation.

While Birnbaum counsels intermarried couples to plan ahead and avoid buying plots in Jewish cemeteries, he sometimes has to tell mourners that their non-Jewish relative cannot be buried with the rest of the family.

“It’s not my rule, but it comes out as my rule,” he said. “So we come off looking like the bad guys.”

The situation will only grow more pressing, said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

“If it’s not at critical proportions, it soon will be, especially in the liberal movements,” he said. “One-third of the Reform community is intermarried.”, a Boston-based organization that encourages intermarried couples to make Jewish choices, has just started listing Jewish cemeteries open to interfaith couples on its Web site. But such resources are rare.

“If our synagogues and official Jewish cemeteries don’t provide options, families will simply opt out,” Olitzky said.

That means choosing a nonsectarian cemetery or one maintained by a different faith. Catholic cemeteries, for example, permit the burial of non-Catholic spouses and often are chosen by intermarried couples.

“Families that are together in life should remain together in death,” said Roman Szabelski, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Birnbaum, who works in upstate New York, arranged the burial of a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman. The widow wanted her husband buried in a Catholic cemetery since the local Jewish one wouldn’t take them. The deceased was a synagogue member, so his cantor officiated, although not at the grave site.

“It was an interesting ceremony, to say the least,” Birnbaum said.

The pressure on Jewish cemeteries to provide burial space for intermarried couples has increased dramatically, with many new initiatives in the past decade.

Stanley Kaplan is executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which holds title to half the state’s 200 Jewish cemeteries. None permitted interfaith burials in 1998 when Beit Olam was conceived. Intermarried couples chose non-Jewish cemeteries.

It was, Kaplan said, “a shanda,” or shame, “that there was no Jewishness to their end-of-life ceremony.”

More than 1,000 of the 2,000 burial sites were sold in the first three months, most to people in their 40s. That’s decades younger than the typical purchaser, Kaplan said, “but they knew if they didn’t buy now, there wouldn’t be space when they needed it.”

On Dec. 3, just east of San Francisco, Gan Shalom broke ground. Slated to open next summer as a nonprofit cemetery shared by five Reform and Conservative synagogues, Gan Shalom was presented as a solution to local Jewish cemeteries fast nearing capacity. Insiders say its real purpose is to provide an alternative for San Francisco’s highly intermarried East Bay, now served only by an Orthodox-controlled cemetery.

Gene Kaufman, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, which owns the new cemetery, said policy has not yet been set, but he expects it will have a small Orthodox section while most of the land will be open to interfaith burial.

In general, the problem is more acute in smaller towns. Larger cities can support more than one cemetery, providing liberal and stricter options.

Birnbaum said his Conservative congregation in Syracuse, N.Y., runs a cemetery that won’t bury non-Jews, “and that’s par for the course in these smaller communities.”

In the Midwest and the West, where intermarriage has often been higher than in the East, Jewish cemeteries historically have been more open to burying non-Jewish family members.

Tulsa, Okla., has two congregations, one Reform and one Conservative, and each owns a section of the city’s cemetery. Both bury non-Jewish family members, said Rabbi Charles Sherman of Reform Temple Israel.

“Here in the middle of the country, we’ve faced the situation of non-Jewish spouses for a long time,” Sherman said. “No one wanted to be in the position of denying a Jew burial in a Jewish cemetery.”

There is no Jewish cemetery in Port Angeles, a backwater town along Washington’s Pacific coast. Olympic B’nai Shalom Havurah, with 40 to 50 members, uses the public cemetery.

“There’s no separate section,” congregant John Debey said. “We just bury them.”

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