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Introducing Beit Olam, A Jewish Cemetery for Interfaith Families

A year and a half ago, I gave a Rosh HaShanah sermon to honour Jews-by-Choice, people who choose to formally enter into the covenant between God and the Jewish People.  I also thanked people who choose not to convert to Judaism, but who whole-heartedly commit themselves to raising Jewish children and attaching themselves to the Jewish People.  In the receiving line after the service, some congregants thanked me, some told me I was brave to deliver such a message, and one congregant took my hand in his, looked me in the eye and said, “I didn’t know it, but I now realize I’ve been waiting for that sermon for forty years.”

That Rosh HaShanah, I offered an open invitation with no expiration date: if anyone would like to explore the possibility of becoming Jewish, any one of our three rabbis would like nothing more than to welcome you for a private conversation.  I believe one religion in the home can be an essential unifying force for family life and communal life. I believe Judaism can offer gifts of wisdom, comfort, and practice, which enrich the years of one’s life in ways that cannot be measured. However, Judaism is not a proselytizing religion.  Having suffered centuries of forced conversions, we would not dare impose Judaism on any one.  By definition, religious conversion must be chosen by one’s own freewill.

Some choose to marry into a Jewish family, raise a Jewish family, create a Jewish home, participate in keeping the Jewish calendar, and celebrating the Jewish life cycle, even without becoming Jewish themselves.  They support the synagogue financially and often with volunteerism, too.  They support the Jewish community and often become good advocates for Israel.  At the end of long lives of such sincere commitments, all they ask to be laid to rest with their Jewish partner.  Until now, we have not been able to provide for them.

Beit Olam

Some Reform congregations in the Greater Toronto Area have established small sections of Jewish cemeteries for interfaith burial, but the community-wide cemeteries are not ready or able to meet this growing need.   After much consultation with representatives of the Toronto Jewish Community leadership and with full support of Benjamin’s Memorial Park, we believe we have found a real solution.  Thanks to our Executive Director, Russ Joseph, we have identified a good partner in Glenview Memorial Gardens.  Within the very large cemetery, not far from the airport, there are multiple sections.  A new section has been prepared to serve as a Jewish Cemetery for Interfaith Families.  It will be named Beit Olam, which is a ancient Rabbinic term for a cemetery.  It means, “Eternal Home.”  Because Olam also means “world,” the name implies inclusivity; it suggests that this is a shared house.

In its commitment to upholding tradition and simultaneously extending a hand of welcome and inclusivity, The Holy Blossom Temple Board has approved the establishment of Beit Olam not as an “interfaith cemetery,” but as a “Jewish cemetery for interfaith families.”  For example, only Jewish and non-denominational symbols will be engraved on the headstones.  Only Jewish clergy or our designates will officiate at the burial services.  Beit Olam will be entirely surrounded by borders and roads to delineate it from the rest of the Glenview cemetery.  Young trees have been planted around its internal perimeter.  A water source has been created for handwashing.  One Glenview professional has been designated to work with all Beit Olam families.  She comes with many years of experience working with the Shaarey Zedek cemetery in Winnipeg.

Many other congregations across the GTA are now hoping to join us.  This is a synagogue-based initiative, led by Holy Blossom Temple.  Our partner synagogues are welcome to establish their own sections within Beit Olam.  In time, there will likely be a “community section” for unaffiliated families and for interfaith families who belong to Conservative or Orthodox congregations.  Rabbinic colleagues from participating synagogues will join me in creating a Rabbinic Advisory Group, which will oversee all of Beit Olam and ensure that our established Standards of Ritual and Practice are honoured and upheld.

Two Essential Mitzvot

Jewish law dictates how to bury, not where to bury.  At Beit Olam, Jews will be buried with all the Jewish rites and rituals, while having the comfort of being laid to rest alongside their loved ones.  To Honour the Deceased (K’vod haMeit) and To Comfort Mourners (Nichum Aveilim) are essential mitzvot.  With the establishment of Beit Olam, we will further our ability to do both with dignity and compassion.

Russ and I have been working very closely on this initiative for more than a year with Dana Lampe, Chair of Holy Blossom’s Cemetery Committee.  We are very grateful for her leadership and her discerning wisdom.  If you have any questions for any one of us, please be in touch.  And in the South African Jewish tradition, I wish you all “Long life!”

If you are interested in learning more about Beit Olam, please come to an information session on Monday April 30 at 7:30 pm. If you’d like to inquire about purchasing a plot, please contact Cindy Zimmer at (416) 789-3291 x 229 or [email protected].
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  • Rabbi Splansky
    Reply

    Thank you, Frances. I hadn’t heard that the custom was also shared by the Montreal community. It would be interesting to know its origin.

  • Francees Hellen
    Reply

    Wishing a “Long life!” is not just a tradition in South Africa. I grew up in Montreal saying that to someone who was honouring a yahrzeit or at a house of shiva. My guess is that it is a British tradition that continued in parts of the commonwealth.

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