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West Laurel Hill Cemetery Getting Ready to Unveil Its Jewish Section

June 16, 2011 By:
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Work continues on the Jewish section of the West Laurel Hill Cemetery

The West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd is set to officially, and belatedly, open its Jewish section later this month, making it the newest Jewish burial space in the area.

But it remains to be seen whether a newcomer -- a private company running a historic cemetery with Quaker roots -- can make inroads in a Jewish community that has relied on longstanding cemeteries and family-owned funeral homes.

The Bala Cynwyd site -- a non-sectarian, 187-acre space founded in 1869 -- is slated to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new section on June 29 and begin interring bodies at about that time.

The private, non-profit company, which added a funeral home in 1995, has set aside about three acres, with room for about 1,500 graves. Within that, a smaller Orthodox section is planned.

Though Jews have long been buried in the main part of the cemetery, and rabbis have conducted graveside services, there has never been a Jewish section. In fact, there's no Jewish cemetery in Lower Merion Township or nearby. According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," 15,000 Jews live in the Kehillah of Lower Merion.

So far, roughly 150 burial plots have been pre-purchased, a handful of which have been reserved by Orthodox families, according to Pete Hoskins, president and CEO of West Laurel Hill.

The plan created buzz when it was announced in late 2009. Rabbi Avraham Shmidman, leader of Lower Merion Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox shul, took part in a groundbreaking ceremony.

Hoskins said that his staff worked with Shmidman and Rabbi Robert Alpert, ritual director of Har Zion Temple, to design a space that conformed to tradition and law, including erecting a separate entrance, setting up basins for ritual washing of the hands, and even planting trees and shrubs according to Jewish law so that roots would not draw nutrients from the decomposing bodies.

But the cemetery's hoped-for connection with local synagogues has not materialized. A deal between the cemetery and Lower Merion Synagogue to purchase a congregational plot fell through. The synagogue's president, Stuart D. Rudoler, said in an email that "there was insufficient support on the LMS board to undertake the financial commitment needed to make it work."

Shmidman could not be reached for comment; a number of area rabbis also would not comment.

No other congregations are currently exploring a similar setup, said Hoskins.

Originally, the Jewish section was expected to open sometime in 2010. Hoskins said that it took longer than anticipated to get approval from Lower Merion Township. Altering the soil erosion plan also pushed the project back nearly a year.

That delay has had other consequences.

Some Jewish families wishing to have their loved ones buried at Laurel Hill consented to have the remains stored above ground for an extended period, Hoskins said, which is contrary to Jewish practice. The law requires that a body be interred within 24 hours, but even when that does not occur, burial usually happens within a few days.

According to Hoskins, the families preferred to keep the remains and wait for the section to be finished than to go to another cemetery.

He also noted that there are "different practices among different families and cultures."

For example, he pointed out that a local Reform rabbi requested that the cemetery allow non-Jewish spouses to be buried next to their partners, while Orthodox rabbis decry the practice. That's one reason why an Orthodox section is needed, said Hoskins.

Several sources questioned whether West Laurel had the knowledge and experience to conduct Jewish funerals and perform the traditional rituals, such as the washing of the body.

"It takes time, it takes knowledge, it takes commitment," said Adam Levine, a member of the family that runs Joseph Levine & Sons Funeral Home, whose family's business dates to 1883. He also questioned whether a Jewish section in a non-sectarian cemetery would ever be considered as truly Jewish by the bulk of the community.

Hoskins countered that West Laurel Hill has demonstrated its commitment to operating within the bounds of tradition and conforming to the wishes of families and religious authorities. He said the cemetery is working on setting up a permanent rabbinic advisory council. "We are going to be as faithful as we can be when carrying out the operation of a Jewish cemetery," he said.

He also pointed out that Orthodox Jews represent a minority of the Jewish community, and many non-Orthodox Jews are far less concerned about specific details regarding Jewish burial law.

Gwen Gilens, a Gladwyne resident in her 70s, is one of the 150 or so people who've pre-purchased plots in the new Jewish section. For Gilens, questions as to whether the cemetery is following the law weren't all that important.

Her husband insisted on purchasing a plot in a Jewish space, though she would have been just as happy to buy space on the general grounds.

For Gilens, a landscape architect, the concerns are twofold: aesthetics and convenience for other family members, most of all the surviving spouse.

"Given my passion for trees, it was very appealing for me to be in a setting where there are trees," Gilens said.

"We don't need to go to a cemetery to remember the people we love. They are with us all the time," she said. "What I get is a sense of connection and peace and tranquillity."

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