Posts Tagged ‘Jewish funerals Philly’

If you have found this article, it is probably because you have just experienced the loss of a loved one and are trying to figure out “what to do next.” I am a rabbi living in Philadelphia’s Mainline and in addition to my work at a local congregation, I work with about 40+ unaffiliated families each year offering weddings or funerals.

In this blog post, I will let you know what the preparation process is like. While I sometimes officiate standard, or traditional, Jewish funerals, my largest clientele is families who are unaffiliated, have interfaith family dynamics, or who want a theistically secular funeral service. I will also give you some examples of specific prayers or readings that can be used in this type of ceremony.

Every funeral ritual is different: As an officiant, I try to match the liturgy and content with the beliefs and wishes of the deceased as well as the sentiments of his/her loved ones. Trying to do both is possible — it just takes some time, and some conversations, to figure it out.

Many Jewish funerals include two classic pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. But today, many people favor more contemporary readings on the issues of death and grief.  For an interfaith audience, a traditional reading from the Torah (such as Psalm 23 “The Lord is My Shephard I Shall Not Want …”) works well, and is recognizable to both Jews and Christians. OR, we can substitute biblical readings with selections that are less theistic in nature, such as an excerpt from the beautiful poem by Marge Piercy called The Seven of Pentacles.

We figure out what readings or liturgy are best to include, based on the conversations I have with immediate family members and friends.

During the memorial service, I love to include one to three guests, who come up during the service and offer a few thoughts or memories about the loved one. We can also include and “open mic” situation, where we open up the floor to any of the guests present for some impromptu memory-sharing.

I also love to include a short eulogy where I share highlights of the person’s life, her loves and interests, and what she will be most remembered for. Prior to my rabbinic life, I worked as a professional journalist for 20 years; this autobiographical information I glean from family members during interviews, and write into a eulogy that I hope captures the spirit and life of the person who died.

So how, exactly, does all of this happen? The process for funeral service planning is the following:

1) An initial phone call to get acquainted and confirm the schedule.

2) If you live in the Mainline, an in-person meeting with one or two family members who knew the deceased really well. We will meet for about 1 hour in your home, and discuss what kind of service you would like, as well as share details about who the deceased was as a person.

3) If you live outside the Mainline, this planning meeting can be done via conference call.

4) Ask you to find out the deceased person’s Hebrew name. You might need to make calls to your extended family to find this out. It might also be recorded on a ketubah. A person’s Hebrew name is usually used during the memorial service.

5) Meet ½ an hour before the service begins to go over any final details or questions.

6) The service itself is usually held at the funeral home. If internment is going to take place, the service is usually followed by a much shorter graveside service, with just immediate family members attending.

If you are on a tight schedule planning your funeral, and wish to contact me, please send me an email, as well as a text. (I have several small children at home, so I’m not always deeply attuned to all of my technological gadgets!)

They are: Joysa.Winter@gmail.com and  (c) 267-902-7752.

May strength, comfort and peace be with you and your family in this difficult time.


Another article I wrote on this topic can be found here: https://wanderinghebrew.com/2012/08/15/planning-a-jewish-funeral-in-philly-101-what-you-need-to-know/

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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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