Beth Shalom cemetery designed to meet needs of Jews by choice

The new Beth Shalom, Chesed Shel Emeth Cemeteries sign on White Road gets approval from board members, (L to R)  Stephen J. Pessin, vice president; and Jerald Hochsztein.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

After years of discussions, a new Jewish cemetery in Chesterfield will come into being next month as part of an effort to accommodate the burial needs of certain Jewish converts.

Beth Shalom Cemetery is set to be dedicated May 1 in preparation for its opening a week later. The new burial ground will lie across 1.5 acres of unused territory subdivided off the north side of its larger neighbor Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery.

The arrangement, which involves the creation of a separate name and legal entity was necessary because the latter cemetery, an Orthodox institution, has halachically-based rules regarding eligibility for burial. While Jews of any denomination may be interred at Chesed Shel Emeth, converts are only permitted if their conversion was through an Orthodox rabbi.

“We really look at trying to serve the community as a whole while still perpetuating the fact that Chesed Shel Emeth is an Orthodox cemetery,” said Alan Simon, president of the cemetery board. “I think everyone on the board has respect for that, yet we do realize that the majority of the community is not Orthodox and we will do what we can to service it as a whole.”

Under the plan, Beth Shalom will be open to Jews by birth as well as those converted by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. The first of two phases will make 342 new graves available next month with that number eventually expanding to 1,150.

Those who have purchased unused plots at Chesed Shel Emeth will be able to transfer them to Beth Shalom if they wish. However, old remains will not be disinterred.

Both cemeteries are accessed through the same gate on White Road but Beth Shalom will be delineated from Chesed Shel Emeth by plantings and a stone marker.

The creation of Beth Shalom emerged from discussions prompted by rabbinic leadership in the local Conservative community, part of three years of consultations between cemetery officials and local and national Jewish religious figures. Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue was among those participating in the conversations. He said the issue of Jewish burials in these circumstances is a difficult one that requires great sensitivity and commended the cemetery’s leadership for their flexibility and hard work.

“This is a solution that I understand is being used around the United States by a number of communities because we have an increasing number of individuals who have been converted in past years,” said Fasman. “It’s also part of a very serious issue that Israel faces having to do with personal status questions.”

Fasman said that conversions to Judaism became much more common with the Baby Boom generation. Increasingly that has meant compromises such as the one achieved at Chesed Shel Emeth have become more necessary to prevent the possibility of families being buried apart.

“I guess we are seeing the front edge of that demographic shift right now,” he said. “The issue is going to become increasingly important for every Jewish community in the United States, especially those of significant enough size to have Jewish cemeteries. Because of that, they are going to have to look for solutions such as that which Beth Shalom represents.”

Fasman, a Conservative rabbi, said that he understands the situation facing his rabbinic counterparts in the Orthodox community who are trying to uphold religious law.

“Rabbis are stuck between halachic commitments and our desire to embrace all members of the Jewish community including those who have joined us by choice,” he said.

Another participant in the discussions, Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, said that the compromise was the best that could be hoped for.

“These are not easy things to discuss, especially when you are dealing with a cemetery,” he said.

However, he said that despite the difficulty of the subject matter, the talks proceeded without rancor.

“They feel very strongly about their bylaws and the fact that they were established as an Orthodox cemetery,” he said. “At the same time, they really wanted to be able to serve the community. I really applaud their efforts.”

Rabbi Yosef Landa was one of the Orthodox rabbis involved in the discussions.

“We were thoroughly impressed with the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which the lay leadership at Chesed Shel Emeth approached these very serious issues and with their stalwart commitment to upholding the halachic character which has been the hallmark of Chesed Shel Emeth for over a century,” said Landa, who also chairs the St. Louis Rabbinical Council, the area’s Orthodox rabbinic group.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, said that while he wasn’t involved in the discussions, he was aware of the issue and the arrangement, which impacts the Reform community as well. He said he personally knew of instances in which converted family members found out that they could not be buried next to their loved ones in an Orthodox cemetery. It’s a thorny and often painful problem since some families may purchase plots for members as a group without being fully aware of the rules.

“It’s a very difficult issue and it’s an issue of dealing with both halacha and the emotions around grief, dying and arranging for burial,” he said. “I think that Chesed Shel Emeth tried to be as compassionate and concerned as possible.”

Rules and bylaws vary from institution to institution. For example, Stiffman said that New Mt. Sinai, a South County cemetery owned by three Reform synagogues including Shaare Emeth, has rules allowing Jews converted by Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis. Non-Jewish spouses are also permitted.

Simon said the membership of both cemetery boards are the same for the moment, though this would not necessarily be the case permanently.

“It will be the same office staff and groundskeepers,” he said. “Legally, they will just be two separate cemeteries.”

Simon said the cemetery board was made up of all parts of the community including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated.

Begun as a burial society for Russian Jewish immigrants in 1888, the original Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery at Olive and Hanley began five years later but began to reach capacity in the 1960s necessitating the purchase of the present tract in Chesterfield.

Today, Simon estimates that only a little over a tenth of that “new” Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, which retains roughly 28.5 acres of land after the partition, is occupied. He said that if demand warranted, Beth Shalom is situated such that more space could be ceded to it in the future.

Dedication of the new cemetery will take place at 10 a.m., May 1. The public is welcome. For more information or to RSVP, call 314-469-1891.