A bidding war over a Brooklyn cemetery could end up providing a local solution to a much more widespread conundrum: Where should the members of interfaith families be buried?
On July 15, the New York State Cemetery Board will decide who can purchase and develop Canarsie Cemetery. The bidders include two other Brooklyn institutions: Cypress Hills Cemetery and Green-Wood Cemetery. If Green-Wood gets the 13-acre land, they plan to designate a portion of plots for Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform temple in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, which hopes to create a place where interfaith couples can be buried.
The idea came to Rabbi Andy Bachman after he had one too many conversations with frustrated congregants who didn’t know how to handle the traditional protocols against interfaith families in Jewish cemeteries. “Beth Elohim is typical of many Reform synagogues,” explained Bachman. “A couple might be ‘interfaith-less,’ that is, both are not practicing, but they might, when they have kids, be very happy to light candles or give their child a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” He continued: “For all intents and purposes they are living as Jews. Then one day, someone dies of a heart attack and there is no plot. The Jewish part of the couple can be buried in a family plot, but when the other half of the couple dies, they cannot be buried next to them.”
Beth Elohim’s plan raises many questions surrounding whether or not intermarried couples should be buried together in a Jewish cemetery. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which was convened by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, recommended this halachic solution: “The creation of ‘mixed burial’ sections in Jewish cemeteries, where non-Jewish spouses and children may be buried alongside Jews. The mixed section should be separated from the rest of the cemetery by a path, a road or a sidewalk of four amot (1.9 to 2.3 meters wide.)”
“It’s like they are saying that they are segregated in life and not welcome in perpetuity,” was Bachman’s response to that.
After the Cemetery Board makes its decision, any sale must then be approved by the Mayor, City Council, and a State Supreme Court judge, according to Nicholas S. Pisano, Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller of Green-Wood Cemetery.
Pisano has also been a member of Congregation Beth Elohim for the past 11 years; he converted to Judaism this past April. “Personally, being in a mixed marriage, my wife and I never thought about what would happen when we passed away,” said Pisano. “I always thought there would be space for me and my wife, never thinking I couldn’t be buried there.” He added, “I’m like a shoemaker with no shoes.”
Cemeteries Are Becoming New Challenge for Interfaith Families [Forward]