Archive for August, 2012

Planning a Jewish funeral is one of the hardest things for families to do.

No matter how expected the death was – and all the more so when it wasn’t expected – a death leaves everyone in the family reeling with grief, and overwhelmed by all of the logistical choices that need to come next.

• How do you find a funeral home and a funeral officiant who can provide the right kind of Jewish funeral service (for your family?)
• How much time do you have to get everything done?
• What does the funeral-planning process look like?

I work with many unaffiliated Jewish families. Some are interfaith; others come from a strong atheist or Secular Humanist orientation. I will strive, in this blog article, to answer some of the most common questions I encounter working with these families.

Step One: Contact A Funeral Home
Your first task is finding a funeral home who will handle your loved one’s remains. Philadelphia has three Jewish funeral homes. I have worked with all three of them, and believe they all have solid reputations:

Goldstein’s Funeral Home
6410 North Broad St.
Philadelphia PA 19126

Joseph Levine & Sons Inc.
Trevose, PA 19053

West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Bringhurt Funeral Home
225 Belmont Ave.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

West Laurel is the newest company to join the Jewish funeral service profession. Last year, they designated a new Jewish area to their beautiful historic cemetery overlooking the Delaware River.

West Laurel is right off I-76, and hence is very close to Center City and the Mainline. West Laurel is also unique in that they offer full cremation services on site, and they inter cremated remains in the Jewish part of their cemetery.

What does the funeral home do? They will help you determine:
1) How you want your loved one’s remains handled.
2) The date and advertising of the burial and memorial service.
3) The date and advertising of any shiva minyas following the burial.
4) Refer you to a local rabbi or officiant who can provide the religious aspects of the service.

Take a Deep Breath
One factor that makes Jewish funeral planning so stressful is that there has been a long-standing tradition that bodies are buried within 24 hours after death. Given how far-flung people’s families are, trying to make such arrangements on such a tight schedule often creates a great deal of hardship—not to mention expense.

My advice, as someone who has worked with many families in this tough situation, is to be kind to yourself. Don’t make yourself miserable with the punctilious following of ancient rules. How many other Jewish “rules” do you follow? If your answer is “not many” — ask yourself why it is important to strictly follow this particular rule.

Should the burial of body or cremains happen within the first week after death? Sure, if possible. If it can happen without too much pain in the first few days after death – great, even better. But please, don’t add to the heartache of your family by taking on herculean efforts to accommodate this kind of rapid-fire schedule. Also, don’t plunge family members into debt because they had to go out and pay $1,000 for a rush-rate plane ticket.

Think about what works for you. Keep your mind open.

Step Two: Discuss the Pros and Cons of Burial vs. Cremation 
Unless your loved one has left explicit directions on what she wants done with her remains, your family is left to make this difficult choice.

“Wait a minute!” You might be saying. “I thought Jews don’t cremate their dead!!?”

Well … that’s only partially true.

It is true that in the Torah (in the biblical era, circa 500 BCE) Jews favored burial. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that they were living in an arid desert, so what other options did they really have? – not many.) It’s also true that today’s Orthodox Jews believe burial is the only appropriate choice within the confines of halacha (Jewish law).

As with so many things related to Jewish law, however, just looking at “the Law” doesn’t tell you the whole story. At many points in Jewish history, our communities have embraced different ways of handling our dead. Here are just a few examples:

• During the Second Temple period (c 35 CE), the dead were left exposed in underground caves. Once their bones disintegrated, they were ground up and put into ossuary containers.

•  In the Mishnaic times (c 300 CE), bodies were left in above-ground tombs, in catabombs filled with tombs. Many famous authors of the Mishna were buried in this fashion in a famous burial grounds in northern Israel, outside Haifa, called Beit She’arim. Wealthy Jews from all over the then-Jewish diapora (principally Greece and Turkey) paid princely sums to have the bodies of their loved ones shipped for burial at Beit She’arim. (Obviously they weren’t too concerned with having burial occur within 24 hours, were they?) To learn more about this beautiful historic site and national park, visit here: https://www.touristisrael.com/beit-shearim/8877/

• In Great Britain in the late 1800s, the Reform movement officially began permitting cremation, in part in response to the shortage of land available for burial on their landlocked island.

It’s the secret no one talks about, but did you know that 40 percent of Jews in metro Philadelphia are being cremated upon death – not buried!? The reasons are numerous.

• Cremation costs much less than a traditional burial.

• Some people are motivated by the environmental impact of burial, and believe cremation lessons the human “footprint” on the earth.

• Others simply feel that having their ashes spread in an ocean or dispersed in a forest is a more fitting way to end their life than to be entombed in a traditional cemetery.

I’m not here to tell you how you should feel. My job is to simply let you know what your options are. I also want you to know that there is nothing wrong with considering cremation – and there are rabbis out there who will support your decision!

Step Three: Contact an Officiant to Oversee the Memorial Service

The first place people often turn when looking for a Jewish lifecycle officiant is to a congregational rabbi with whom they have some prior relationship. That’s a great idea and a great place to start.

If you are unaffiliated, ask your friends or neighbors if they can recommend a rabbi. Many rabbis work outside of congregations these days – as hospital chaplains, in nursing homes, at university Hillels. Ask around and see if you can get any referrals.

Or, turn to Google. That might very well be how you just found me and how you found this blog post. There is a growing number of “freelance rabbis” who service the unaffiliated. I worked exclusively as a freelance rabbi for many years, and such folks  scrape together a living by getting called by people exactly like you — Jews who are not members of established associations, but still seeking quality, informed rabbinic guidance during key moments  in life (births, weddings, deaths.)

Although I now work for a local congregation, I also work with about 40+ unaffiliated families each year, providing funerals or weddings. If you have a funerary need that is time-sensitive, please send me both an email and a text, and I will be in touch as soon as I can: Joysa.Winter@gmail.com and  267-902-7752.

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In honor of several friends who have lost loved ones this week, and another friend honoring a yahrzeit, I wanted to offer this excerpt from a book I’m reading called Readings for Rememberance: A Collection For Funerals and Memorial Services, selected and with an introduction by Eleanor Munro.

One unique aspect of Judaism I have always loved is its open embrace of mourning. Death is a deeply painful event, and Judaism isn’t shy about acknowledging and embracing this pain.

Death is also an event that reminds us of the value and importance of everything we do here on earth. Here is what the famous Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, had to say in the mid-1900s:

Some religions do not regard our sojourn on earth as true life. They either teach that everything appearing to us here is mere appearance, behind which we should penetrate, or that it is only a forecourt of the true world, a forecourt which we should cross without paying much attention to it. Judaism, on the contrary, teaches that what a man does now and here with holy intent is no less important, no less true — being a terrestrial indeed, but none the less factual, link with divine being — than the life in the world to come. This doctrine has found its fullest expression in Hasidism.

Rabbi Hanokh said: “The other nations too believe that there are two worlds. They too say: ‘In the other world.’ There difference is this: They think that the two are separate and severed, but Israel professes that the two worlds are essentially one and shall in fact become one.”

In their true essence, the two worlds are one. They only have, as it were, moved apart. But they shall again become one, as they are in the their true essence. Man was created for the purpose of unifying the two worlds. He contributes toward this unity by holy living, in relationship to the world in which he has been set, at the place on which he stands.

— Martin Buber, from “Here Where One Stands” in The Way of Man


As a fourth-year rabbinical student, I offer Jewish or Secular Humanist funeral rituals (as well as tombstone unveilings in the Jewish tradition) in Mainline Philadelphia and surrounding areas.  Email joysa@aol.com for more information.

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Are you looking for a wedding or vow renewal ceremony location that is:

* outdoors, natural, and almost totally private

* no facility fee (!)

* for a very small wedding party (under a dozen — no seating provided)

* within 20 minutes of downtown Philly?

After years of officiating weddings in the Mainline area — and years wracking my brain trying to come up with an outdoors location that meets all these criteria — I have finally come up with the perfect venue! I think of it as Philly’s Best Kept Outdoors Wedding Venue Secret. Most amazing of all: It is free.

Rolling Hill Park is an exquisite natural park nestled in the winding roads and soaring mansions of Gladwyne. The park itself is made up of winding dirt paths that travel for about a mile down to a riverbank. The walk passes by several abandoned rock homesteads dating back to the 1800s, which would make fabulous background vistas for photographs. And, because the land is not private (it is owned by MontgomeryTownship), there is no multi-thousand-dollar facility fee.

Wow. All the times I’ve been hiking there, I have never seen a small wedding party there. Heck, I hardly see anyone at all — just the occasional local running his or her dog off leash, and even more rarely than that, an equestrian riding his or her horse on the trails.

Apart from the sound of an airplane passing overhead now and then, the only sounds are crickets, cicadaeas, and a cacophony of birds. If you love nature, are on a budget, and just want a short, sweet, simple wedding — this is the place for you.

Keep scrolling to see some snapshots I have taken of different places where you could gather to exchange your vows, as well as idyllic places to pose afterward for pictures.

I am able to offer short, simple but heartfelt wedding ceremonies or vow renewal rituals that are either “spiritual” in nature, or lean more toward the secular humanist side of the spectrum (ie, no “god” references). Email me at joysa@aol.com for rates, date availability, and more details.


This is the first place, near the parking area, where you could exchange vows. It’s a very short walk, so is ideal for a group in which guests have limited mobility. The woods extend behind it, and there are usually no people here.


This is an old sawmill the operated in the early 1900s on the river beside it. It was abandoned in the 1970s. It would make a cool backdrop for photographs, along with the river and abandoned homesteads nearby. (About a 0.7 mile walk into the woods from the parking area.)


This is an area along the trail, by the river, where a group could gather to hear you exchange your vows. The sound of the trickling stream is right beside you here.


If you were feeling really adventurous, everyone could take off their shoes and you could wade out into the rock bar and exchange vows in the river itself! On the day I was here taking pictures, a few friends were hanging out and playing guitar.


I love this as a place to exchange vows. It is one of the abandoned homesteads that had been occupied by the families that worked at the sawmill. You could stand here, with this as your backdrop, looking at the river while you exchange vows. Nestled in the trees, it reminds me of a set from Lord of the Rings or a Grimm’s fairytale.Image What was this? An old cellar? Not sure. Another nice backdrop for a photo.


On the way back to the parking lot (away from the river), you pass by this wood-made stairway, cutting up the hill. It would make a beautiful place to stage a wedding party or stage wedding guests for a group photo.


I am able to offer short, simple but heartfelt wedding ceremonies or vow renewal rituals that are Jewish, “spiritual” in nature, or lean more toward the secular humanist side of the spectrum (ie, no “god” references). I have suggestions on places where you could go afterward with your wedding party to eat, as well as practical suggestions for making this venue idea work for you and your guests.

Read a few reviews from happy couples I have worked with at the Knot here. Email me at joysa@aol.com for rates, date availability, and more details. Please state in your subject line/email that you are interested in a Rolling Hill Park wedding (or vow renewal).

Cheers, and congratulations on your happy event!


For more on Philly weddings, please see some of my other posts:

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