Beth Israel Synagogue Cemetery


Years of tradition

 

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Baron de Hirsch Cemetery

In 1893, the urgency of having a Jewish cemetery became apparent too late, when the need arose. The newly formed congregation was not prepared when Mr. Morris Levy, age 44 (partner of A.L. Michaels) suddenly died on March 13, 1892, in Halifax. The body had to be taken by train to New York for burial. To prevent this from happening again, the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society immediately arranged to purchase a plot of land on the outskirts of the City. It was located on the western side of Windsor Street, part of the "Culvie Farm" purchased from Mr. William A. Hendry on June 20, 1893 for the sum of $300 in the names of Abraham L. Michaels, John Lewis and Solomon Glube. The lot was formally consecrated on Sunday, July 30, 1893, by Rev. Simon Schwartz.

The wall along Connaught Avenue was erected in loving memory of Rose Soberman. The wall along Windsor Street was erected by John Simon in loving memory of his daughter Thelma (Simon) Cohen and his wife Mildred.

In the l950ís, the Board of Governors, led by Earle Bowman, spent years negotiating a land trade with the City, which resulted in increasing the cemetery lands to permit the alignment of Windsor Street. The original dedication stones were taken from the earlier wall and placed in the new wall on September 30, 1968.

The Board mapped the locations of all graves, set out a program for future use of the land and provided necessary information for the Congregationís records. The concrete walls around some graves were removed to permit easier care procedures. The size and shape of tombstones were standardized which greatly improved the appearance of the cemetery. The Board initiated procedures necessary for its ongoing maintenance.

Edgar Wolman took over the Chairmanship of the Cemetery Committee from Irwin Mendleson and served for ten years. Phil Alberstat had been Chairman for several years giving very dedicated personal service on a momentís notice. Edgar adhered to that tradition of personal service and continued the standards of stone design and plot maintenance. Concrete block footpaths were installed by Max Pascal in 1986 to enable clear access to each gravesite without walking inadvertently on others.

Since 2004, the entire grounds of the cemetery have been undergoing a reconstruction including resetting all stones on new bases, constructing new walkways and retaining walls and planting new sod and shrubs. The exterior walls have been re-pointed and the entrances re-set. All of this work was paid for by a single donor who chooses to remain anonymous.

An ongoing committee of several members including Jack Prince, Steven Pink, Ralph Loebenberg, Phil Alberstat, Frank Medjuck, Sharron Ross, Abe Leventhal and Victor Fineberg supervised this project and commenced an Endowment Fund for the future care and maintenance of the cemetery in perpetuity.

This project also enabled the creation of additional gravesites and the opening of a new adjacent site that more than doubles the current capacity. This avoids the necessity of finding a remote and disconnected site elsewhere.

Chevra Kadisha

Introduction

The term "Chevra Kadisha", Holy Brotherhood, came to apply to a society formed for the reverential disposal of the dead in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Originally, the privileges were only for the actual members. Even until the 14th Century, there are comments from Rashi indicating that there were many such societies responsible for only its own members. The first Chevra Kadisha to provide for the burial of all members of the community was established by Eleazar Ashkenazi in Prague in 1564 and confirmed by the Austrian government. They regulated the matter of fees to be paid, the allocation of graves and rules for the erection of tombstones. Their most important duty was the preparation of the corpse. Some of the societies also provided for tending the sick, providing clothes for the poor and arranging the rites in the house of mourning.

Membership in the Chevra Kadisha was regarded as a coveted honour. Two documents in Jewish history reflect this. The first refers to the founder of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, when he was five years old. Today, the 16th of Kislev 5510 (1750), the child Shneur Zalman, the son of Baruch, was accepted as an assistant (shammash) until he reaches his religious majorityí. His grandfather, in consideration of the honour, provided planks for the Synagogue and an annual contribution. The second document later records the boyís election as a full member.

Sir Moses Montefiore, in his diary, expresses pride in being elected as a member of the Sephardic Chevra in London and it is reported that he fulfilled his duties with meticulous care. The institution of Chevra Kadisha is unique to the Jewish Community and derives from the Jewish tradition and law that no material benefit may accrue from the dead. The fraternal aspect of the Chevra was observed in various ways and most commonly being an annual celebration day, traditionally the 7th of Adar, being the anniversary of the death of Moses. The day began as a fast, in expiation of any inadvertent disrespect show to the dead. It concludes with a sumptuous banquet, regarded as on of the important occasions of the community at which sermons were delivered.

The Early Years

For the first half of the Twentieth Century, the Halifax Chevra Kadisha was a community-wide organization consisting of a menís and a womenís Chevra. During that time, virtually all family members of the community were first generation immigrants. All practiced to some extent a form of traditional Orthodoxy and Yiddish was the language of communication. The Synagogue was the true center, not only of religious practices but also of cultural and social activities. Support of the Chevra Kadisha was a holy obligation of all the members of the community and in some cases, whole families undertook the work.

Shortly after arriving in Halifax in 1917, the Garson family began working for the Chevra Kadisha, as did the Nathansons in 1925. Manya Nathanson continued her work for 59 years and Abe Garson took up the familyís traditional role in the 1960ís for another 29 years of further service. Mrs. Betty Arron recalled how her father, Rev. A. Levy, together with John Simon formally organized the working group into the official Chevra Kadisha Society for Halifax, with its own Constitution, fees and autonomous administration.

The Society operated the cemetery but it did not hold the legal title to the land. This critical point later led to the end of the "old" Chevra and the beginnings of a new "Chevra" under the auspices of the Synagogue in the mid-50ís which owned the land of the cemetery.

The Chevra performed its duties of the preparation and the internment for all Jewish persons, with the best of intention and the highest of selfless motivation. Occasionally, the Gabbai, being human, permitted human emotions to factor into his decisions. Nevertheless, the basic idealism of the Chevra has been maintained in Halifax in continuing to provide to the families of the deceased members, by their friends and fellow members of the community, with all personal considerations, rather than turn them over to commercial undertakers.

The 1950ís

The Gabbi of the Chevra in the early 1950ís was Jack Gordon. Among his workers were Sam Goodman, Myer Pliskow, Louis Keshen, Jake Gordon, Motte Zelig Goldberg, long-term Shamos, Elyon Eddie Whitzman and Harry Kitz to name a few. All were sincere workers although stories abound as to when, on occasion, they would take a drink when doing the "recht". Nevertheless, they were available all hours when the need arose.

The Womenís Chevra was presided over by Manya Nathanson for many decades. Among her workers were Elizabeth Weiner, Dorothy Zive and Naomi Fishman and Flo Kirsh to name a few. Each became Gabbetta in turn. Many of the women of the community sewed burial shrouds and provided hospitality for bereaved families.

It is interesting to note how few of the descendents of these original community workers of fifty years ago are now in community work and how a new generation has taken on these ancient holy duties.

Abram Garson was an exception. He became a dues paying member of the Congregation in 1942 and, as tradition dictated, when he became the oldest male member of the family with the death of his father, he was enrolled as a member of the Chevra Kadisha. Years later, he took over as Gabbai Rishon. Congregation leaders of that time were Charles Zwerling, Manuel Zive, and the families of Whitzmans, Aarons, Gordons and Simons, all traditional "Shul goers".

At this time, there was jealous competition for the leadership and the power within the Synagogue because Synagogue leadership was synonymous with community leadership. By 1953, a second generation of Canadian educated people had grown up in the community, well-spoken college graduates, with whom the older membership and leadership could not compete for popularity. The group was led by Noa Heinish, Bob Kanigsberg and Nathan Green, for whom Canadian life required changes to Orthodox practices. Unable to gain power because of the voting control of the older generation, the young people split off to form their own Conservative congregation, Shaar Shalom. In fact, changes in religious services were not so enormous, but a young and energetic modern group in the community had been identified and there was no stopping them. The older generation of leaders was amazed at what happened and was unable to cope as competition for congregational support waxed fast and furious.

Another group arose, young "modern traditionalists" under the leadership of Dr. I.K. Lubetsky, Sam (S.S.) Jacobson and Joe Zatzman who remained with the Baron de Hirsch and took over control. Under I.K.ís leadership, a younger generation of Board Members made the many sweeping changes to provide competing services with the new Shaar.

Dr. Lubetsky declared the Baron de Hirsch cemetery would be used only for its members. In attempting to retain the power of the Chevra Kadisha, Jack Gordon as Gabbai, attempted to force Dr. Lubetsky to agree to retain a community Chevra by threatening to withdraw Chevra services. Dr. Lubetsky responded by forming a Synagogue Chevra Kadisha as a committee of the Baron de Hirsch Society. He named Sam Goodman as Gabbai. From that point on, the Board of Governors would set fees for Chevra Kadisha services and control the cemetery to which it had legal title. At that time, Abe Garson, a new Board member and Secretary of the Congregation was instructed to look after the new committee. So began for Abe Garson, a 20-year association with the newly formed Chevra Kadisha, which he recalled with great pride and satisfaction. During all the years of transition, he did not recall any conflict with the womenís Chevra. He vividly recalls that while Jack Gordon ranted and argued in 1953, Manya Nathanson continued her work for the community at large and kept the womenís Chevra out of the controversy.

Following this transition, most of the traditional services were unchanged. The Chevra Kadisha continued to provide two sitters for each funeral service. This provided the opportunity to use younger men of the Congregation. This pool of workers emerged as the future leaders of the Chevra, with undiminished devotion to their duties. They initiated standards of respect in their work. For example, drinking at a recht was discontinued. By way of explanation, all rechts had been done in the homes of the deceased with equipment brought into the home for that purpose. Frequently, conditions were such that the Chevra, for the most part made up of older men, might reasonably require a stimulant. In later years, most deaths occurred under better conditions in a hospital. As another important change, instruction was always taken from the Rabbi as to the laws and customs. Improvements were aimed at providing standards so that there were equal services for every family. The funeral homes were instructed to provide one kind of coffin, all wood, with wooden pegs and without adornments except for a wooden Magen David. A fixed price was also established for each funeral. Rechts were to be done on the funeral home premises where facilities permitted the proper dignity required.

For the first ten years, The Chevra charged the congregation nominal fees. These accumulated funds were used for two memorial boards in the Sanctuary, and, in 1965, for gates in the cemetery wall as a memorial or the first Gabbai, Sam Goodman. Jack Wolman was Treasurer of the Society for countless years. The last Treasurer was Robert Smilestone. Since it had little other use for funds, its surpluses were returned to the congregation, and the charges discontinued. From 1953 to 1964, Sam Goodman was Gabbai Rishon and Abe Garson was Gabbai Shaini. Abe took over in 1964 and served as Gabbi Rishon until 1973. After 20 years of leadership in Chevra work, Abe stepped down with full confidence that the work would be continued ably under his successor, Robert Wolman. To me the Chevra reflects the finest aspects of Orthodox Jewish life in this modern time. I remain proud to have had the opportunity to assist our congregation and congregants in time of need and equally proud to have had associations, through the Chevra and with Chevra ideals, with outstanding men and women of our congregation. (Abe Garson, 1990)

1970 to 1985

Robert (Bob) Wolman took over as Gabbi when Abe Garson became President of the Congregation. To Bob, and in keeping with tradition, the Chevra was basically a fraternal group of men and women bound together by a moral fiber that had its roots in the fundamental traditions of our people. Its sole function was to put their brethren to rest with dignity, with respect and to ease the burden of the survivors in their hour of sorrow.

The rabbi of the day, Rabbi Daniel Levine, was so impressed by the effort and sincerity, that he would say in his jocular fashion that even Maimonides would have considered it a privilege to be buried by the Chevra Kadisha Society of Halifax.

As the children of earlier members grew up, they were recruited into congregational duties of all sorts, and the Chevra Kadisha got its share of volunteers. The largest group of volunteers in the 1950ís to 1970ís were first and second generation Halifax born.

They first started as "sitters", a 24-hour function, then funeral duties, then the "recht" or "Tahara". Passing the traditions down to the new generation became the priority of the Society. Although it was always considered a duty to answer the call, it became not so much an honour to do it but a dishonour to refuse. Members included Wilfred Mosher, Sol David, Allan Rubin, Max Kirsh and Saul Garson. Max Kirsh assisted in all functions through the l950ís and continued to the end of the 1970ís. They learned the laws and customs from the older generation that included Myer Pliskow, Sam Goodman, M.B. Fineberg, Ben Zemel, Abe Garson and Jayson Greenblatt. This transition period was crucial.

Even at this time, the Gabbetta of the womenís Chevra was Manya Nathanson, though slowing down considerably. Her official position was maintained and it fell to Florence (Mintz) Kirsh to carry out most of the duties. Flo was Manyaís right hand through the 50ís and then Flo became Gabbetta in 1962. She retired fifteen years later at a congregational dinner in December 1977, given by the Chevra Kadisha. She was presented with an engraved plaque as a token of the congregationís esteem for the very quiet and modest manner in which she performed her tasks. The women assisting Flo Kirsh included Elizabeth Weiner, Naomi Fishman, Dorothy Zive, Reni Cuperfain and Mindy Jacobson. At one point, Flo was invited by the St. Johns, Newfoundland community to fly there, prepare one of the departed and train the women how to do it themselves. When Flo retired, Reni Cuperfain became Gabbetta. Throughout all this time, the women quietly did their work, staying out of the politics and financial affairs, which were always a concern to the men. Flo told us that, "We worked with tender love and care and received full support and respect from the Rabbi and the gentlemenís Chevra."

Robert Wolman always introduced Flo Kirsh at the Chevra Kadisha Dinners when she would thank her fellow workers as being "first among equals."

Halifax was a strong secular community and rather loose in religious devotion (where education ended at age 12 and 13). The important traditions of Chevra Kadisha would pass from a generation who learned it in the "old country" to a North American born generation of limited religious education.

In order to make up what they lacked in formal education, they learned by actual training, and experience, and perhaps knowing their limitations and the importance of the task, they took their duties more seriously and with ardent fervor.

Bob Wolman remained Gabbai Rishon for seven years and passed the leadership to David Cuperfain in 1978. Reni Cuperfain also became Gabbetta at the same time, this being the first husband and wife team at the head of both Chevras.

The Cuperfains continued to 1984 when they moved to Toronto. Their son Ronnie joined the Chevra with them as a full participant in all functions.

One of the lighter customs of the Chevra was the annual dinner with the entire community participating. It began as the Gabbaiís Dinner, prepared and paid for by the Gabbai for his Chevra. It was held on the Sunday closest to the 15th of Kislev and it eventually became a full congregational function stressing the Chevra aspect more than the Kadisha.

Between 1968 and 1978, almost the complete generation of congregants active during the tumultuous 1920ís to 1940ís were laid to rest. This generation was born after the founders and was considered part of the "modern" Baron de Hirsch of Robie Street. Bob Wolman recalls it was a busy and sad time. A pattern seemed to develop that deaths would occur in groups of threes and when one or two died, the Chevra stood on call for the next one.

There was a time when, at the Annual Dinner, the speeches would only be given in Yiddish. Later the speeches began in Yiddish and drifted into English. Then, Bob recalls, Yiddish became the language for jokes, punch lines, dates and descriptive phrases.

When the Cuperfains left in 1984, the next transition to a truly younger generation took place. They had not expected the mantle of responsibility so soon.

1985 to Present

Paul Lipkus became Gabbai and Judy (Schneiderman) Abraham became Gabbetta. Mindy Jacobson was Financial Secretary of the congregation and assisted July in Chevra work rather than take charge herself. When Judy moved to Toronto a couple of years later, Mindy became Gabbetta and is so to this day. Again, another family involvement, as Jack Yablon is her husbandís nephew.

The active members of the 1990 Chevra Kadisha included Gabbai Rishon Paul Lipkus and Gabbetta Mindy Jacobson. Their workers included Jack Yablon, Ray Ginsberg, Frank Medjuck, Victor Fineberg, Ralph Loebenberg, Joey Roza, Myrna Yazer, Doreen Gordon, Helen Israel, Sybil Fineberg and Kathy Zilbert.

Many members of the Congregation regularly assisted in many of the various tasks; Phil Alberstat, Irwin Mendleson, Norman Ross, Laurie Astroff, Barbara Yablon, Genevieve Lipkus and Marsha Astroff.

A tribute dinner was held for Howard Polar our oldest "chaver" at which time Howard sang a number of Hebrew and Yiddish melodies. Other dinners included various cultural presentations such as a dramatic reading by Ed Rubin, a nostalgic treat by Lil Garson of early years in Cape Breton and music by Fruma Glazman.

The Shaar Shalom Chevra Kadisha was always invited to the annual dinner and most attend in mutual respect for each otherís work. The Chevra from both congregations worked closely together and even attempted to combine forces into one communal society as in the old days, but the small core of workers found the workload too heavy to carry the entire community themselves. Often it meant leaving oneís daily business on a phone callís notice and absorbing a great deal of personal stress from each family. In many cases, in a community as small as Halifax, the sad loss often involves a friend or a relative.

Currently, the Chevra Kadisha is led by two Gabbayim, Ray Ginsberg and Paul Lipkus, who are assisted by Irwin Mendleson and Phil Alberstat as Chair of the Cemetery Committee. The womenís Chevra Kadisha Society is led by Gabbetta Mindy Jacobson, and her committee includes Goldie Trager, Marsha Astroff, Myrna Yazer, Kathy Zilbert, Debbie Novack .......... At the close of every Annual Dinner, the members of the Chevra Kadisha Society, unlike all other committees of the congregation, hope they will be inactive in the coming year.