Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill and Temple Ohav Shalom of the North Hills have reached an agreement that will create a new Temple Ohav Shalom cemetery, which will accommodate interfaith families, on an unused portion of Beth Shalom’s cemetery property.
The new cemetery will adjoin Beth Shalom’s cemetery, located in Shaler Township, on Anderson Road, within a few miles of Ohav Shalom, according to Ken Eisner, president of the Reform congregation.
The Ohav Shalom cemetery will be separated from the Beth Shalom cemetery, which, as a traditional Conservative cemetery, permits only Jews to be buried there.
A large percentage of families affiliated with Ohav Shalom are interfaith, Eisner said, and until now, the congregation has used a portion of Allegheny County Memorial Park as a burial site.
The two congregations began negotiations for the Ohav Shalom cemetery in March 2012, and signed a final agreement last week.
The new cemetery is comprised of 518 gravesites, Eisner said, and will be separated from Beth Shalom’s cemetery by roads and foliage. Ohav Shalom has committed to spend up to $10,000 on planting bushes and trees to create a separation barrier between the two cemeteries.
The new cemetery will fill a need for many members of Ohav Shalom, as well as members of Beth Shalom and other community members who are married to non-Jews.
“I think we wanted to be able to offer more of a complete life cycle [of services] to our congregants,” said Larry Garber, chairman of the Ohav Shalom cemetery committee. “This was a great opportunity, especially for those in mixed marriages.”
“It’s not an interfaith cemetery,” Garber continued, “but a Jewish cemetery, where non-Jewish family members can be buried.”
Garber and his committee researched the practices of other Reform congregations around the country, and standards recommended by the Union for Reform Judaism, in coming up with certain restrictions controlling usage of the cemetery, he said.
Monument symbols and services at the cemetery will have to be either Jewish or nonsectarian in nature, restrictions that are also in place at the cemeteries of both Rodef Shalom Congregation and Temple Sinai.
Beth Shalom’s staff will oversee the maintenance of the cemetery, and will collect the appropriate fees from Ohav Shalom family members, while Ohav Shalom will market the cemetery.
“In my thinking, this new cemetery accomplishes four goals,” Eisner said. “First, it perpetuates in death what our congregation is in life: a Jewish institution open to interfaith families. Second, it provides a new revenue source. Third, it provides a greater awareness of our congregation throughout the greater Jewish Pittsburgh community. And fourth, it will allow for tombstones, when the Allegheny Cemetery only allowed for markers.”
The idea of using part of Beth Shalom’s property for an Ohav Shalom cemetery was brought to a congregational vote at Beth Shalom, and passed with “overwhelming” support, according to Alan Himmel, former chair of Beth Shalom’s cemetery committee, and current executive vice president of the congregation.
“It’s a collaboration,” Himmel said. “We have land that will never be used because we have enough land to do burials for 300 years.”
All future burials at the new cemetery will be subject to the approval of the Beth Shalom’s mara d’atra — the religious decision — (currently Rabbi Michael Werbow), as well as Temple Ohav Shalom and the policies of the Union of Reform Judaism.
In a letter to its members, Beth Shalom President Howard Valinsky assured his constituents that Beth Shalom’s commitment to halachah would not be compromised by the new adjacent cemetery.
“We want to assure you, our members, that our agreement with Temple Ohav Shalom will, in no way, compromise our strict adherence to halachah concerning maintaining sacred burial grounds of our Congregational Cemetery,” Valinsky wrote. “The grounds that Temple Ohav Shalom will be acquiring will be kept separate from the Beth Shalom Congregational Cemetery grounds, and our cemetery policies and procedures will remain unaffected.”
For Ohav Shalom, the new cemetery will satisfy the needs of its members for years to come.
“We have an awareness of where things are going,” Eisner said. “The Pew study showed there is a steadily increasing rate of intermarriage. This is a recognition of that.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)