Your Federal Quarterly Tax Payments are due April 15th Get Help Now >>



									 “A Matter of Grave Concern”: An Interfaith Burial Section at the Cemetery of
                        Congregation Ohev Shalom

                            by Rabbi Mark Robbins, 5/06 (updated 6/07, 2/08)

We are blessed in our community to have our own beit kivarot, cemetery, a beautiful, well-kept parcel of land in
Brookhaven that serves as the resting place of thousands of members past and future of our synagogue. With
ownership of own cemetery, a circumstance shared by very few of our sister Conservative congregations, comes the
responsibility of maintaining the cemetery’s adherence to the strictures of halakhah, Jewish law, while expanding the
law, if possible, to incorporate the changing demographic and social reality of today’s Jewish community.

Intermarried families represent upwards of 5% of Ohev Shalom’s family units, and the numbers will grow both in
absolute and relative terms, as an increasing percentage of our new members are intermarried. Non-Jewish spouses,
although not officially members of the synagogue, play an active role in synagogue life. They participate in the
Jewish raising of their children, support religious school attendance, and are often highly present in the life of the
synagogue. Some choose to become Jewish, and become exemplary synagogue volunteers. Others remain rooted
in other religious traditions.

As part of our response to the growing presence of interfaith families in our community, we should create a
halakhically-permitted means by which intermarried spouses can be buried together in our cemetery, appropriately
honored, rather than being buried elsewhere, away from the religious community of people with whom they’ve
made their lives. With baby boomers, the generation in which intermarriage grew precipitously in the Jewish
community, approaching 60, it is important that we address this issue now.

It is important to note that this issue is worthy of consideration from many different halakhic perspectives,
including a pre-eminent issue of shalom bayit, maintaining peace in the house and the community.

The Halakha:
I have consulted with rabbinic authorities and colleagues, and read the relevant responsa of the Committee on
Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement, on this issue.

Traditional halakha prohibits, a priori, the burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries, except in extreme circumstances
such as the inconclusive identification of body parts in a natural disaster. The original reasons for the prohibition
are both obvious – the strictures against intermarriage in Jewish tradition – and more subtle:
    1) the possibility – assumed in ancient days -- that the non-Jewish decedent denied the one God who is at the
        center of our Jewish belief system both in life and in death.
    2) the possibility that the non-Jew was a rasha (“evil person”), thereby desecrating the graves of tzadikim (“the
        righteous”) nearby.
    3) concern about the exclusive application of Jewish law and sensitivities in the cemetery, control over rites to
        be conducted in the cemetery, and the perpetuity of the designation of the cemetery as Jewish (karka yisrael)

In many of the wild, sprawling communal cemeteries that characterize Jewish America, burial of Jews and non-Jews
together has become a fait accompli, with a “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy guiding the burial of non-Jewish family

We must be more responsible and intentional in addressing this issue.

Following discussions that had gone on for many years, in 1991, the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards
approved a responsum written by Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman (obtainable from Rabbi Robbins) creating guidelines
for permissible non-Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery. I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Bergman’s thinking,
summarized by the following.

1) Designate a distinct section of the cemetery as a mixed burial area.
2) Establish a physical mechitza (separation) – such as shrubbery or hedges -- between this section and the rest of
   the cemetery.
3) Establish a mechitza of at least one-grave width between the grave of the Jew/s and the grave of the non-Jew/s
   in the mixed burial section.
4) There is no need to transfer ownership of this mixed section to a non-Jewish owner.

Furthermore, I believe it appropriate to:
1) Prohibit clergy of other religious traditions from officiating, in their roles as officiants of other religious
    traditions, at denominational burials of non-Jews in the mixed section. The only denominational religious
    ceremonies permitted in the cemetery are those of Jewish tradition.
2) Prohibit the usage of symbols and language unique to non-Jewish traditions (e.g. Christological references or
    physical symbols) during the interment, creation of the tombstone, unveiling of the tombstone, and ongoing
    maintenance and care of the grave.
3) Enable the rabbi, at his/her discretion, to officiate at the burial of non-Jews in this section, utilizing ecumenical
    psalms and prayers shared by religious traditions.
4) Permit, if rabbi declines to officiate and if rabbi permits, civil, lay or ecumenical officiation at such burials. This
    could include ministers of other traditions functioning strictly in an non-denominational capacity, without
    denominational garb, language or symbology. The text of the service and officiant would be subject to review
    and approval by the rabbi prior to the burial.
5) Carry on the right of interment of relatives in a family plot in the new “mixed” section, whether they are Jewish
    or non-Jewish, as long as the above guidelines and all the other rules and regulations of the Ohev Shalom
    Cemetery are followed, and the mechitza of space is maintained between Jewish and non-Jewish graves.
6) Family tombstones may straddle the mechitza between Jewish and non-Jewish graves in the mixed section.
7) There must be one-grave width on each side of each grave in the mixed burial area, be it a Jewish or non-Jewish
    grave. This will facilitate halakhic implementation of the mixed burial area.
8) Restrict rites of burial in the mixed section to immediate relatives and relatives’ spouses of the non-Jewish
    decedent, if the relatives are not-Jewish.
9) Permit the rabbi, with the consent both of the president of the congregation and cemetery chairperson, to
    prohibit the interment of an unrepentant anti-Semite, criminal, Jew for Jesus, Messianic Jew, or other whose
    burial in the Ohev Shalom cemetery constitutes a chilul hashem, desecration of God’s name.
10) Permit burial rites for an intermarried couple, where the choice has been made to raise children in the non-
    Jewish faith, if the Jewish spouse is a member in good standing of the community.
11) Reinforce the policy of burial for Jews-only in the remainder of the cemetery, and publicize relevant rules and
    regulations of cemetery usage for those purchasing plots in mixed section.

Response to concerns
I want to respond to concerns expressed to me in my research.

1. In response to the traditional concern #1 expressed above, it would be just as likely that a Jew buried in the
   cemetery would be a non-believer and a denier of the one God as it would a non-Jew buried in the mixed
   section. Moreover, most non-Jews in our area are monotheists as well.
2. In response to the traditional concern #2 mentioned, above, we can assume no difference in the ethical
   character of the Jew from the non-Jew in today’s world. Additionally, refer to #9 above concerning those
   others whose lives stand as an affront to Jewish identity.

3. In response to the traditional concern #3 expressed above, Ohev Shalom retains ownership of the entire
   property, with the ability to fully regulate the activities of non-Jewish burial on the property, as already
4. This would weaken Ohev Shalom’s and the Conservative Movement’s position against mixed marriages. Intermarriage is a
   reality, one we discourage but then work with when it is a fait accompli. It certainly is incumbent upon the
   rabbi to gauge interest in Judaism and conversion amongst non-Jewish spouses. However, when non-Jewish
   spouses are either rooted in their own faith or do not pursue conversion, we must honor them – and their role,
   in most cases, of raising Jewish children -- by being as inclusive as possible up to the outer boundaries of
   halakha. This is how Ohev Shalom is proceeding in the realm of non-Jewish participation in b’nai mitzvah and
   other lifecycle events.
5. This would bring dishonor to decedents buried in the Ohev Shalom Cemetery who might have opposed this change, and expected to
   be buried in an exclusively Jewish parcel of land. Halakha changes as generations change and as sensibilities change, as
   it always has. If we followed the above line of thinking, we would then be inhibited from making halakhic
   change (e.g. egalitarianism) in a synagogue whose earlier members may have opposed such halakhic changes.

    The matter of non-Jewish burial in our cemetery demands immediate attention, as baby-boomers and others
    begin to consider where to be buried. It is halakhically permissible to create a separate mixed section in a Jewish
    cemetery with a sub-section of separated non-Jewish graves, and I encourage the congregation to adopt this as

    Addendum 1:
    It is a truism that, as we resolve one halakhic matter, another arises. This is sure to be the case in the fertile area
    of how Congregation Ohev Shalom relates to the non-Jewish participants in the community. The next matter
    we must consider, along these lines, is the conduct of non-Jewish ritual ceremonies in our building – be it in the
    sanctuary or elsewhere. The frequent amicable sharing of facilities between Jewish and non-Jewish
    congregations, e.g. during times of construction/emergency, makes this issue a very real and important one to
    engage. Moreover, we must also address the constitutional ambiguity of the membership status and privileges
    of non-Jewish participants in our synagogue life.

    Addendum 2:
    The Rabbi, Executive Director, and Cemetery Chairperson have identified a section within the cemetery for
    interfaith burial – immediately on the left when one enters the cemetery, adjacent to the veterans memorial. It
    meets our size needs for this section, and is also already naturally demarcated from the rest of the cemetery.

    Approved by Cemetery Committee, 5/06
    Approved by Ritual Committee, 6/07
    Proposal approved by Board, 2/08

    For further reading:

        i) Moshe Zemer, Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law (Woodstock,
            VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999).
        ii) “A Matter of Grave Concern: A Question of Mixed Burial,” a responsum by Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman,
                       Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement,1991.


1) May there be a funeral service for a non-Jewish spouse/family member within the synagogue?
   There is no precedent for this at Ohev Shalom. It is not currently permissible. There is a strong argument
   to be made, however, in support of such a service for a service in Jewish law, because of 4 values: “the ways
   of peace,” not angering the non-Jewish community, the designation by most rabbinic authorities of
   Christianity as NOT being idolatry, and the frequent joint usage of facilities in the modern day between
   churches and synagogues (such as during construction projects in one or the other). The rabbi and ritual
   committee will consider the details and nuances of such a policy change in the upcoming years.
2) If both spouses in an interfaith marriage die at the same time, what are the rules about use of the
   sanctuary? Due to this extenuating circumstance and the fact that one of the spouses is Jewish, it would be
   permissible to utilize the sanctuary for such a funeral. Jewish rites would be performed by the rabbi for the
   Jewish spouse, with universalistic rites to be performed by rabbi (or other leader, at rabbi’s discretion) for
   non-Jewish spouse.
3) Ohev currently has at least one member on the books who is not-Jewish (divorce from the Jewish
   spouse, Jewish children in the school). What are the rules concerning like individuals who may ask
   to be buried at our cemetery? The Jewish members of the immediate family are entitled to purchase
   cemetery plots in the interfaith section, which would provide a plot for the non-Jewish individual mentioned
   above and for themselves in the future.
4) Where does the rabbi fit in to funerals that include a non-Jewish person? The Rabbi is permitted to
   perform a universalistic service.
5) What rules will cover head stones, clergy, etc for the non-Jewish spouse? No non-Jewish symbols or
   markings will be permitted on headstones or footstones in Ohev Shalom cemetery, or, for that matter, on
   any other structure in the cemetery. The content of any service done for a non-Jewish decedent at the
   cemetery must be cleared with the rabbi.
6) Will the cost of the plot and perpetual care for the non-Jewish spouse be the non-member rate?
   Same rates will apply. The board reserves the right to raise fees for plots in the interfaith burial area, as
   more land is required for each grave.
7) Should a family ask, will we allow a member be to be buried in the “all Jewish” portion of the
   cemetery and the non-Jewish spouse in the mixed marriage section? No.
8) Will we be opening up our cemetery to non-members, Jewish or non-Jewish? No, except for non-
   members who purchased plots while members, and non-members being interred in family plots.
9) Will Goldsteins be able and/or willing to handle the funeral arrangements for the non-Jewish
   spouse? Yes, they already do funeral arrangements for non-Jews.
10) If an interfaith couple must, God forbid, bury their non-Jewish child, will they be able to use our
    cemetery, synagogue, etc? Yes, on condition they purchase a plot within the interfaith section that will
    be the later resting spot for the Jewish spouse.
11) Does the same apply to burying the non-Jewish parent of the non-Jewish spouse in an interfaith
    marriage? No, this burial will not be permitted in the cemetery.
12) Concerning subsequent Rabbis at Ohev Shalom, would there generally be Conservative Movement
    support for this initiative? There is growing support in the movement for creating interfaith burial
13) Who should vote decide on this issue? Rabbi, Board, with town meetings and mailings to flesh out the
    issue in the community.


To top