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Ensuring Dignity in Death for Needy Jews rss

Posted on: June 27th, 2011

When Chamutal Sdayur’s 86-year-old mother died in March, Sdayur says that she didn’t know how she would pay for a funeral. Since the economic decline, her husband has been unable to find work as a graphic designer and tries to make ends meet by working as a lifeguard. Sdayur, who lives in Brooklyn with her family, stays at home to care for her 15-year-old disabled daughter.

Mount Richmond Cemetery

Mount Richmond Cemetery, in Staten Island, is operated by The Hebrew Free Burial Association.

“I turned to Hebrew Free Burial Association because I couldn’t afford a funeral and my mother didn’t have any money to cover expenses,” Sdayur explains.

It’s a situation that’s on the rise, says Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York. In 2010, HFBA performed 344 burials, which represents a 28 percent increase from pre-recession 2007, Koplow notes.

“The recession has had a serious impact on the work we’re called to do,” she says. “We’re getting cases that wouldn’t have needed us four or five years ago — people who may have had some kind of plan for burial and now have seen their funds disappear.”

HFBA, which began in the 1880s, provides free burial services to impoverished Jews and operates the Mount Richmond Cemetery in Staten Island. Since its inception, HFBA has performed more than 60,000 burials.

“It is our precious mandate to ensure the dead are respectfully taken care of, especially when proper Jewish burials are not affordable, and that their surviving family members feel embraced by the Jewish community,” explains Roberta Leiner, managing director at UJA-Federation.

Stone on grave at Mount Richmond Cemetery

A visitor left a stone on grave at Mount Richmond Cemetery run by The Hebrew Free Burial Association.

For Sdayur, HFBA truly offered that emotional embrace.

“The help from Hebrew Free Burial Association meant everything. Their rabbi explained everything about the service to me, and made it meaningful and touching,” she says. “The day after the funeral, he called. He really made me feel better, like someone cares.”

Volunteers Make Minyan Possible

HFBA also helped provide a minyan for the funeral as the only extended family remaining was Sdayur, her brother, and her mother’s cousin.

Since June 2010, 89 volunteers have ensured that each funeral has a minyan, notes Koplow. One in three funerals by HFBA, she says, do not have any mourners present.

When needed, there are 10 minyan volunteers at each funeral, including volunteers like Guy Rossman, who lives in Staten Island and is a retired history teacher from the New York City Board of Education.

“Why do I do this? Because when my mother passed away two years ago, we didn’t have enough people at the cemetery to have a minyan and say Kaddish,” he says. “It hurt me, and I thought if there ever came a time where I could help out with a minyan, I’d do it. So when I heard an announcement at my shul that volunteers were needed, I wanted to help.”

“The volunteers are from all walks of Jewish religiosity. We do it in rain, two-degree weather, whenever needed.” Rossman adds, “Everyone is truly committed to helping the deceased. But I’m glad when there’s a lull and the angel of death goes somewhere else.”