January 17, 2012

Woman Protests Non-Jewish Woman’s Burial in an Synagogue-Owned Interfaith Plot

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 5:33 am by chavalah

The question of who belongs in a place like the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation Cemetery is growing more complex as interfaith families are more accepted in Jewish American life.

Following this lead from Jews in All Hues: In Connecticut, A Woman Sues to Expel a Black Woman’s Body from a Jewish Cemetery,according to the Associated Press. Juliet Steer was buried two years ago at the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation Cemetery in a section that was reserved for interfaith and non-Jews, according to Congregation Ahavath Achim. But one member of the board of directors, Maria Balaban, is suing to have Steer’s remains removed, despite allegedly being present the day that the ruling was unanimously voted in. A gleaning of the quotes, which most interest me, as a “mixie” Jew:

Purtill said the interfaith cemetery was the result of the changing structure of families and the increase in interfaith and other types of relationships, including unmarried couples and civil unions. Congregation rules say burial plots in the interfaith section can be bought “by an individual for any individual without regard to religious identity.”

… Traditional Jewish laws and practices prohibit the burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries, said David Berger, dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University in New York City. “Jews should be buried with other Jews.

There is such an expectation,” Berger said. But the number of interfaith cemeteries is increasing, he said, because there are more marriages between people of different faiths.

As the child of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, the question of death rituals holds more uncertainty for me than it might for others. My parents currently have no plans, but they have discussed non-denominational and non-religious interfaith cemeteries. For me, should I remain unmarried (or should I marry a non-Jew, but that’s personally unlikely,) the question becomes—do I want to be buried with my parents? Do I want to be buried, without family, in a Jewish cemetery? Do I want to do something else?

For Steer, who was a non-Jew with no Jewish family, her decision rested on the peacefulness she felt in the cemetery. She died at 47 of cancer, may her memory be for a blessing.

The logistics of this case seem pretty cut and dry to me, unlike the complex issues of interfaith families in Jewish communities. The congregation voted to allow non-Jewish plots this section; Steer had every right to be buried there. If Balaban has an issue with this, then she should move to change the rules for future buyers. The prospect of exhuming Steer’s body is distasteful, even without the added race sensitivities. Personally, I hope that the media attention has made Balaban realize the insensitivity of her lawsuit, and encouraged her to look for a more respectful way to present her opinions to her community. As it stands, a court date is scheduled for Feb. 29.

To keep up with this story, check out the Jews in all Hues Facebook page, where they are looking to get in contact with the local Jewish community.

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