By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – The cycle of Jewish life is marked by gatherings that commemorate milestones including births, bar/bat mitzvot, weddings and deaths. Jewish tradition has been for communities to come together for celebrations and also to help one another in times of need. Specifically, the burial of the dead and the comforting of mourners are times when Jewish people, throughout the centuries, have organized themselves to reach out with aid and compassion. In Edmonton, the Chevra Kadisha, (Jewish Sacred Burial Society), has been providing the ritual of halachic burial preparation for members of the Jewish community for 114 years.
Edmonton’s Jewish history dates back to 1893, when Abraham and Rebecca Cristall settled in what would one day become a modestly sized, but vibrant community. It was Abraham Cristall who established the Edmonton Hebrew Association in 1906, seeing to the needs of a handful of Edmonton’s founding Jewish families. The Chevra Kadisha in its earliest form consisted of nine men affiliated with the Beth Israel Synagogue. The women’s burial society was officially founded in 1919 but had been unofficially laying Jewish women to rest as early as 1914. The men’s Chevra Kadisha, active since 1907, became incorporated in 1925, with its operational needs still seen to by selected men from the Edmonton Jewish Community.
In an article on the Chevra’s website, edmontonjewishcemetery.ca, archivist Debby Shoctor writes, “Early on, one of the founding members, Jacob Baltzan, formed an alliance with local funeral parlour owner John Connelly Sr., of Connelly-McKinley funeral directors to help with Jewish funerals by providing hearse and passenger cars, filing of forms, etc. This relationship has continued to the present day… In Edmonton’s early days, it was a short distance from the heart of the Jewish community on 95 Street, down Rowland Road and back up the hill to the cemetery located at 7622-101 avenue. In the winter, horse-drawn hearses had to use wooden logs as brakes on the hills. Motorized hearses began being used in the 1930s.”
Shoctor’s words paint a nuanced picture of a much different time in local history. “The cemetery fence and gates were designed and made by Leib Agranov, who had previously worked as Blacksmith to the Czar,” she writes. “He embellished the gates with beautiful fruits, birds, and flowers, which can still be seen today…Other embellishments at the cemetery later included the erection of a cenotaph after the Second World War in 1947 with the names of the war dead inscribed onto it, and is used every Remembrance Day.”
The inherent difficulties of operating and maintaining a Jewish burial society during the dawn of the twentieth century, can be easily overlooked in this modern era of convenience. Today, the Chevra Kadisha owns machinery for the purpose of digging. “It’s certainly not like before when we would dig by hand: rain, shine, or snow,” commented Bill Dolman, a twenty-year member of the group.
Today, the Edmonton Chevra Kadisha consists of 60 men, and women, from across Edmonton’s diverse Jewish community.
“We don’t differentiate between someone who is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. We have always buried anyone who is Jewish. We have a system called ‘next in line’, so you can’t reserve a spot. This means that you could be buried next to someone who is Ultra-Orthodox, or someone who is secular,” the organization’s Vice President Dave Marcus stated in a recent interview.
“The caveat to this is that if a spouse dies, G-d forbid, the other spouse can arrange for a double plot,” added Dolman. The two even recall hearing about the death of a Jewish employee of a traveling carnival during its visit to Edmonton.
“He’s buried in our cemetery,” said Marcus, “Some phone calls were made and they found his family in the States to verify that he was Jewish… The biggest difference between our Chevra Kadisha and many others in North America is that we are all volunteers who run the society as a not-for-profit charity.”
Marcus is careful to mention that service to one’s fellow Jew at a time of such great vulnerability is a mitzvah, but that the work of the Chevra Kadisha is not suited for just anyone.
“It needs to be a calling,” said Marcus. “Sometimes people come and eventually leave our group, and that is completely understandable. What we do is definitely not easy.”
Marcus’ own calling came gradually. “I was working on the southside, and sometimes, if they didn’t have a minyan for a funeral service, one of the members would call me to step in,” he explained. His contribution to Edmonton’s Chevra Kadisha may have begun with the occasional minyan, but Marcus’ dedication to preserving the dignity and ritual of Jewish traditions soon became an integral part of his life. Now, as Vice President, he works closely with Rhoda Friedman, the current Chevra Kadisha president, and the rest of the executive on the group’s operations. The Chevra Kadisha goes to great lengths to contact families of deceased Jews. “I’ve had occasion to track down rabbis and even a decedent’s distant family member in Spain. Mind you, it was in the middle of the night here. But we always do whatever we can.”
Many of the group’s volunteers are older. Both Marcus and Dolman explain that this is because they believe that younger people should be spending time raising their families and focusing on life.
“The organization has been here for 114 years” said Marcus. “Well I intend on being here for at least 47 more years,” interjected Dolman with a grin. “We haven’t changed our minhag (customs),” continued Marcus. “Maybe some of our operations have been modernized – we now have a tractor – but our minhagim have not and will not change.”
“And part of the Edmonton minhag is that everyone is treated equally, 100%, treated exactly the same. Once the spirit has left the body, Jewish values ensure that we treat it with the proper respect, that the levaya/funeral is conducted per halacha, and that you let the family go through its grieving process,” added Dolman.
Edmonton’s Chevra Kadisha is not affiliated with any one shul, any one community, or any one rabbi. They maintain relationships across the diverse spectrum of Edmonton’s Jewish identities and work closely with all the rabbis in town. Both Marcus and Dolman have had occasion to facilitate at funeral ceremonies themselves in the past. Bill Dolman has even officiated at times.
The group serves a vital and necessary function within the Edmonton Jewish community, yet many know very little about them, what they do, or their history, until the unfortunate time that they should need to enlist their services. Both the Chevra Kadisha, and the current site of Edmonton’s Jewish cemetery are steeped in history – a history of which all community members can, and should, be proud.
For more information visit edmontonjewishcemetery.ca.
Regan Treewater is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter.