Resurrecting The Role Of Funeral Director

Resurrecting The Role Of Funeral Director

New fellowship program aims to rebrand the profession in the Jewish community.

It’s not exactly like being at a hedge fund or a white-shoe law firm.

In fact, Adam Fink, a graduate of Yeshiva University and Hofstra Law School, never thought that he would be a funeral director.

“Unless you’re born into that, where your family has a funeral home or a family member is in it, it’s more outside-the-box thinking,” he told The Jewish Week.

Then Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a close family friend of Fink’s in-laws, asked if he would be interested in a fellowship at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel.

“As I sat and thought about it when he spoke to me, I thought it would be great,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful program. You’re taking care of something that really needs to be addressed, and it’s doing great service work within the community.”

Fink is the first to be accepted into Plaza’s newly launched Fier-McFadden Jewish Funeral Director Fellowship, named in memory of past Executive Directors Andy Fier and Michael McFadden.

Marking its 15th anniversary this year, Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has served nearly 10,000 families as the only community-owned and operated funeral chapel in New York. It also runs educational programs for synagogues and schools about rituals for death and dying and the Jewish lifecycle, and even created a funeral and yahrtzeit memorial app with push notification reminders, selected prayers, and directions to cemeteries.

Despite these milestones, Jewish funeral directors continue to be in short supply. The Jewish Funeral Directors of America represents only 22 states in the U.S. with 170 members.

“When I’m looking to enhance our staff, I’m looking for Jewish funeral directors, and they are not out there,” said Stephanie Garry, Plaza’s chief administrative officer.

Through the fellowship, Garry hopes not only to enhance her staff, but also change the image of funeral directors.

“We are in fact owned and operated by the Jewish community, and I feel that it’s important to, if you will, reframe the importance of the Jewish funeral director in our community,” she said.

Local clergy recommend candidates, who, once accepted as fellows, work part-time at Plaza while obtaining their license (the chapel covers tuition). They will continue there as full-time funeral directors upon graduation.

To become a licensed funeral director in the state of New York is a rigorous process, requiring 12 to 18 months of coursework, six months of residency at a funeral chapel, and several exams. But Garry suspects that it’s more than the intensive training that makes people reluctant to enter the field.

“I don’t think it’s the course piece that scares people off, I think it’s more quote unquote ‘being a funeral director,’ she said. “I think there’s this mystery around it. And one of the things I hope we’re able to do is really reframe the importance of this person in the community.”

Garry was once hesitant, as well. After 20 years of acting in commercials, soap operas, and films, a prolonged union strike in 2002 put her career on hold and prompted her to seek a new direction. Having grown up heavily involved in the synagogue her parents founded in Kansas City, and as a former president of her congregation in Westchester, she turned to the Jewish community she has always called home, connecting with Plaza through the UJA-Federation of New York.

“I had been in a funeral chapel maybe two or three times in my life at that point,” she recalled of her initial interview. “I walked into the chapel for my appointment, and there in the first-floor chapel was a shomer chanting psalms before a service was to begin. The casket was there, the candle was burning, and I had an ‘Aha moment.’ I said, ‘Oh my. This is sacred space.’”

It is this sense of sanctity and communal responsibility that drives the fellowship.

“My funeral directors that I work with are truly my heroes, and so if we can find a few people to go into this sacred Jewish communal service work, then I feel we are ensuring the future of not only Plaza, but of this wonderful position in the Jewish community,” Garry said.

As the first of what Garry hopes will be “a group” of fellows, Fink has been working at Plaza since the beginning of March and will start studying towards his license in May. Even just one month into his fellowship, he’s seen the diverse range of Jewish community members that Plaza serves.

“It’s still pretty new, and every day is something different. It’s dealing with different personalities. Every day there are different people from all parts of Judaism,” he said. “All the people here are exceptionally accepting and helpful and really willing to stay late, come in early, be here on weekends, really work as a team.”

To Fink, the most meaningful part of the job is helping the loved ones of the deceased by removing the burden of planning and executing the funeral and burial.

“When somebody passes away, you don’t know what to do, what to think, where to go,” he said. “Here, we really — from soup to nuts — take care of everything, from when we get a call to when the actual burial occurs. … I’m really, really proud of the work that we do.”

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