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How Jewish Is Your Cemetery?

How Jewish Is Your Cemetery?

I’m trying to make sense of a strange legal battle — one getting more mainstream media attention than Jewish media attention — concerning a Jewish cemetery in Colchester, Conn.

At Ahavath Achim, a Jewish board member (ironically named Maria) is suing to have the body of Juliet Steer, a black Christian woman exhumed, because Steer is not Jewish and has no ties to any Jews buried there.

Adding to the unpleasantness of a case involving digging up the body of a woman who died from lymphoma and apparently wanted to be buried “like Jesus” in a Jewish cemetery, Steer’s bereaved brother claims Balaban is suing only because of Steer’s race. Apparently Steer is the first gentile buried in the cemetery, but three plots have already been sold — with no objection from Balaban — to white gentiles.

Adding to the drama, Balaban is also suing the Conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim (yes, CNN noted the irony of the institutions having a name that, in Hebrew, means “brotherly love”), which owns the cemetery, over the whole issue. According to CNN, the synagogue voted in 2009 to open a section of the cemetery for non-Jews “because so many Jews had intermarried or had non-Jewish relatives. The final decision was to permit everyone since people had different connections to Judaism, including civil unions and friendships.”

This is a whole issue about which I need to learn more. I know many congregations are struggling to find Jewish ways to bury their intermarried couples together without violating traditional Jewish laws concerning cemeteries.

Two years ago, I wrote about a ruling by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which Ahavath Achim was perhaps following, saying that the non-Jewish spouses of congregants can be buried alongside their Jewish partners in Jewish cemeteries, provided that they are in a section set aside for this purpose, that gentile clergy do not officiate at the funeral and that no non-Jewish markers appear on the graves.
In the ruling, approved by a vote of 10 (three law committee members abstained, and one voted against) is the statement, “Our relations to non-Jews are very different than in the past. Many of us have non-Jews in our families. All of us know non-Jews who are strongly connected to the Jewish community although they have chosen not to convert and retain their status as non-Jews.

While I am a bit fuzzy on the details about this Colchester case, having not yet interviewed the players myself, I wonder if this conflict stems from the difficulty of opening up a cemetery to non-Jewish family members without then having to open it up to all gentiles, whether they are part of a Jewish family or not. I can understand concerns that the Jewishness of a cemetery is diluted when even people with no ties to the community are buried there. I’m not sure if that is the source of Balaban’s anger — or if she is, in fact, racist and simply doesn’t want a (non-Jewish) black woman buried near her loved ones.

Can one open up a cemetery to non-Jewish family members but not to everyone — particularly when it may be hard to identify consistent criteria for defining non-Jews who are “strongly connected to the Jewish community”? On the other hand, does it matter if Christians are buried in the interfaith section? Are there that many gentiles who want to be buried in Jewish cemeteries that they would really threaten the Jewish character of a cemetery? Must an interfaith-designated section have a Jewish character? I don't have answers to these questions, at least not yet.

Adding to the ambiguity, irony and confusion: it’s not like Jews are dying (sorry, I couldn’t resist) to get into Jewish cemeteries.
By all accounts, growing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are opting out of Jewish cemeteries altogether, choosing cremation instead, even as it goes against Jewish law. Might we one day see more gentiles than Jews seeking burial in Jewish cemeteries?

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