As former leaders of the now-defunct Homestead Hebrew Congregation age and have become less able to manage the cemetery associated with their former spiritual home, Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill has stepped up to the plate to take over its care and maintenance.
“We were no longer able to do it,” said Clarice Katz, who along with her husband, Bob, has been the steward of the cemetery for many years. “It takes a certain amount of time and effort. But I think now it is in good hands.”
On Oct. 14, the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County awarded Beth Shalom control of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, allowing it to manage future burials and attend to its upkeep, according to Rob Menes, Beth Shalom’s executive director.
“Any endowments necessary for perpetual care will come to Beth Shalom, and we are responsible for maintaining that cemetery in perpetuity,” Menes said. “They just don’t have very many burials going on, so they don’t bring in enough revenue to manage the cemetery. They needed an influx of money in addition to their endowment, and they asked us to take it over and manage it as part of Congregation Beth Shalom, but continuing the practices of their congregation.”
Only a few burials are held each year at the Homestead Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, which sits on a tract of land in Homeville, purchased by the congregation’s members in 1896, just two years after the Orthodox congregation was organized. The congregation disbanded in 1992. At that time, the congregation’s artifacts, including its Torahs and memorial plaques, were transferred to Beth Shalom; Beth Shalom’s daily minyans are now held in that congregation’s namesake, the Homestead Hebrew Chapel.
Caring for the cemetery is “a pretty big responsibility,” Menes said. “But we are committed to keeping it a beautiful place for those who have passed away.”
Although Beth Shalom is affiliated with the Conservative movement, its rabbi, Seth Adelson, will serve as the halachic authority for future Orthodox burials at the Homestead Hebrew Congregation’s cemetery, Menes said.
“Our rabbi is well aware of what the customs have been,” he explained.
The differences in customs between Orthodox and Conservative burials are few, said Lonnie Wolf, Beth Shalom’s cemetery director, but include the Conservative use of a vault or liner for the grave and the prohibition in Orthodox cemeteries of interring cremated remains.
This is not Beth Shalom’s first venture into cemetery management. In 2013, Beth Shalom and Temple Ohav Shalom, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, announced a collaboration to open a cemetery in which interfaith families can be buried together.
Specifically, Ohav Shalom opened its own cemetery, which can accommodate interfaith families, on a previously unused portion of Beth Shalom’s cemetery property. The new cemetery adjoins Beth Shalom’s, located in Shaler Township, not far from Ohav Shalom, and is separated from the Beth Shalom cemetery, which, as a traditional Conservative cemetery, permits only Jews to be buried there.
“As a Reform synagogue, we have sectioned it off completely,” said Wolf. “But members of Beth Shalom can also be buried there.”
Beth Shalom’s staff oversees the maintenance of that cemetery, and collects the appropriate fees from Ohav Shalom family members, while Ohav Shalom markets the cemetery.
Although Beth Shalom is now in effect managing three separate cemeteries, under three different sets of halacha, it is not necessarily in the market for additional cemeteries to manage, Menes said.
But the management of cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania that are connected to congregations that no longer exist, or are anticipated to close in the near future, is a challenge that is currently being addressed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh through a recently formed cemetery task force, according to Deborah Baron, the Federation’s chief operating officer.
The task force is being led by Jimmy Wagner, chair of community building and funding for the Federation. Other members of the task force include leaders from area synagogues, and a representative from the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which helps small Jewish communities plan for the future when faced with the erosion caused by aging and changing demographics. Also on the task force is Jonathan Schachter, president of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh. The JCBA, established in 1992, provides free burials for the needy and indigent and takes care of 11 cemeteries that are no longer managed by the congregations to which they were connected.
While the task force is in the early stages of identifying potential issues concerning the care of cemeteries at risk, and establishing ways of addressing those issues, Baron does not discount the possibility of “strengthening” the JCBA.
“They have been wonderful,” she said. “That might be a potential solution.”
“We want to make sure our cemeteries are taken care of into the future,” Baron added.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.