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Not Allowing Mixed Faith Burials is Painful and Counterproductive

Not Allowing Mixed Faith Burials is Painful and Counterproductive

By Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, Director of Life Cycles, Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

TORONTO, ONTARIO–January 20, 2016 – As a Humanist Rabbi who deals with intermarrying couples and families almost daily, it is clear to me that not following traditional laws and customs doesn’t indicate lack of interest in Jewish culture and community. Yet, in an age of increasing interfaith/intercultural marriages, the attitudes and behaviours of traditional Jewish Communities and Clergy in Toronto are not only painful for intermarried couples and their families but, in my opinion, are counterproductive to ensuring the survival of the Jewish people and culture.

Intermarrying Jews who wish to have a Jewish ceremony and be married by a Rabbi are consistently turned away—not boding well for their continuing interest in things Jewish in the future. The same is true regarding baby namings or brises (circumcisions) and bar and bat mitzvot, particularly where the mother is not Jewish. The issue arises again when intermarried couples wish to be buried side by side in a Jewish cemetery, or one or both of them wish to be cremated and they want a Rabbi to officiate at the funeral and disposition. Once again they are turned away at a most vulnerable and painful time for them.

Intermarried couples, where the non-Jewish partners do not choose to convert, but want to participate in Jewish culture and life cycle ceremonies and to provide a Jewish education for their children, are most often not able to do so within traditional Jewish congregations. These families, however, can avail themselves of these services at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. The non-theistic egalitarian nature of the programs and ceremonies are increasingly in sync with the changing beliefs and behaviours of contemporary Jews. It is a shame that for intermarried couples who want something more religious, the traditional community is not as welcoming and willing to satisfy their needs.

Let me focus on life cycles related to death. Oraynu’s three rabbis officiate at any funeral, memorial, interment, unveiling or shiva service for Jewish people and their non-Jewish partners and families regardless of whether they wish their bodies to be buried or cremated; whether they want their cremated remains interred or scattered, and whether this will take place at a Jewish or non-Jewish cemetery.

But we also wanted to meet a couple’s need to be laid to rest together at the end of their lives. So in 2004 Oraynu looked into purchasing a congregational section at Pardes Shalom Jewish Cemetery. While it was made clear to us that cremated remains and non-Jews could and would not be buried in the Jewish cemetery, Pardes Shalom was, however, looking into purchasing a tract of land abutting the cemetery to the north with a separate road leading to it, thus segregating the intermarried section. They thought it would take over ten years for that to happen. To this day that has not materialized. I was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home so I’m fully aware of how seriously religious Jews treat rabbinic law or customs, but this concept of ‘separating’ the dead by their religion did not sit well with me or the Oraynu board. We started searching for our own section in a non-denominational cemetery, which would also take care of the needs of those who wished to be cremated.

Since 2006 Oraynu Congregation has had its own Jewish section in Elgin Mills Cemetery in Richmond Hill. There are plots for those who want casket burials and for those who choose to be cremated. As well, there are attractive curb urn spaces and flat marker urn spaces. To further reduce the increasing cost of disposition and the financial burden it puts on many families, we recently added a section with smaller spaces for cremated remains with a beautiful standing rock for engraving the names and dates of those interred in these plots.

Clearly the need is there because our cemetery section is rapidly filling up and we will be looking for additional space.

Judaism has and continues to evolve over time. Oraynu does not follow the old rabbinic requirement that Jews be segregated from those they love when they die, nor the tradition that opposes cremation. We let people make their own choices and we honour them.

I am proud of Oraynu’s open attitude and actions respecting the choices that Jews make in life partners, and raising and educating their children. We believe that when modern Judaism becomes welcoming and accessible to all Jews and their partners, when it meets their needs and is more consistent with their beliefs, the likelihood of their remaining Jewish in ways they choose to interpret and practice it, increases dramatically.