by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – It is rare for a celebration to take place within the gates of a Jewish cemetery. But on Sunday June 4, an estimated 130 members of the Edmonton Jewish community joined in what Chevra Kadisha President David Marcus and Jewish Federation of Edmonton CEO Stacey Leavitt-Wright each referred to as a “once in a lifetime” event as a new Jewish cemetery was joyously consecrated on 156 Street at 147 Avenue.
The Edmonton Jewish Cemetery North was born 116 years after the Chevra Kadisha—the “holy society” tasked with the preparation and burial of Jewish deceased—was first established in Alberta’s capital city.
One’s eye could not help but be drawn to the Israeli and Canadian flags fluttering in the gentle breeze, powerfully symbolizing the fact that this community, while rooted in Jewish tradition and love for the Holy Land, has deep roots in Canada and, specifically, Edmonton, where the local Chevra Kadisha was first established in 1907.
Marcus acknowledged the work of the new cemetery committee, including Past Presidents Rhoda Friedman, Jerry Cooper (of blessed memory), Percy Lerner and Harry Silverman. Kudos went to planning and land use consultant Marshall Hundert—who served as volunteer project manager—and marketing committee members Martin Bankey and Joe Miller.
Marcus thanked Gary Coderre and Debbie Lambert—both recently retired from Connelly-McKinley Funeral Homes—for their many years of assistance to the Chevra.
Further testimony to longstanding relationships with service providers was the presence of other friends from Connelly-McKinley, Ecclesiastical Insurance, Edmonton Granite, Legacy Monuments, Mid-City Excavating, and Telsco.
Looking further back in time, Marcus paid tribute to the original founders of the Chevra for their devotion to the sacred duty of honouring the deceased.
“Their commitment to this sacred cause laid the foundation for the work that continues to this day,” Marcus said. “The Edmonton Chevra Kadisha has served as a guiding light, bringing solace and support to countless families during their times of grief.”
Marcus noted that the new cemetery is a “bridge between the past and present, a link that connects us to our heritage.”
“It is a symbol of the resilience of our community, our commitment to honour our past, and our dedication to building a future rooted in compassion, unity and faith,” Marcus added.
Following the Treaty Six land acknowledgement read by Chevra Kadisha Women’s President Paula Globerman, Jewish Federation of Edmonton CEO Stacey Leavitt-Wright shared greetings on behalf of the organized community.
“Establishing a Jewish cemetery is one of the first priorities for a new Jewish community,” said Leavitt-Wright. “The ceremony we are about to participate in is history in the making, something that few Jewish people ever have the opportunity to take part in.”
Paying tribute to the volunteers of Chevra Kadisha—in particular the leadership of Marcus and Immediate Past President Rhoda Friedman—Leavitt-Wright described the work of Chevra volunteers as “unsung.”
“These volunteers perform the ultimate mitzvah of honouring our deceased and comforting the bereaved according to traditions that emphasize humility and anonymity. Chesed Shel Emet, the one true act of loving kindness, is done for those who can never repay the mitzvah,” added Leavitt-Wright.
“What you may not know is that the Chevra Kadisha… is entirely volunteer-run in Edmonton, reflecting the wide range of observance and affiliations across our community.”
Deputy Mayor Keren Tang brought greetings on behalf of Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and City Council, presenting a commemorative certificate signed by all.
Other dignitaries in attendance included Senator Paula Simons; Edmonton MPs Kelly McCauley and Randy Boissonnault; Alberta MLAs Lorne Dach and Nathan Ip; Edmonton City Councillors Karen Principe and Tim Cartmell; Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee, Deputy Chief Devin Laforce, and Chief Administrative Officer Justin Krikler, himself an active member of the Jewish community.
“Edmonton’s Jewish community has made significant contributions to our city, and this space will forever be a reminder of the impact you have made on our prosperity, inclusion and diversity,” said Tang, later adding, “ May this space be filled with blessings, peace and eternal memory.”
Chevra Kadisha Secretary Barry Goldberg provided insight into the consecration rituals that followed.
“We walk the cemetery perimeter seven times, setting its physical demarcation and representing the physical act of separation,” he said. “Psalms are recited to acknowledge our frailty, our weakness and our dependence on our almighty. Charity redeems death and links the cemetery to the living community.”
Following Goldberg’s remarks, Rabbi Guy Tal (Beth Israel), Rabbi Steven Schwarzman (Beth Shalom), Rabbi Ari Drelich (Chabad-Lubavitch), and Rabbah Gila Caine (Temple Beth Ora), and members of the Chevra Kadisha paused for the recitation of Tehilim (Psalms) as they led attendees around the perimeter of the cemetery, beginning, as is customary, in the southeast corner. Following each circuit, tzedakah—charity—was pledged by the Chevra to provide for tzorchei tzibur—community needs.
Marcus invited individuals and families to multiply the mitzvah by similarly supporting any or all of the selected charitable organizations: Jewish Family Services, Edmonton Talmud Torah, National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah-WIZO, the local Synagogue of one’s choice, Chabad (in support of kosher meals for incarcerated Jews), and Jewish Federation.
The Chevra Kadisha was born in 1907 when Abraham Cristall purchased land for a Jewish cemetery on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River, on 101 Avenue. The original cemetery, approximately six acres in size, has more than 2,200 graves. Though that cemetery is nearly full, burials will continue, with plots reserved mainly for the spouses of individuals already interred there.
In an interview late last year, former Chevra treasurer Bill Dolman speculated that funerals at Edmonton’s original Jewish cemetery could continue for as many as three to four decades.
Burials will commence at the new cemetery following the installation of grade beams, hopefully sometime in July, Marcus told AJNews. Beautiful landscaping of the first of three sections is a prelude to further planned development.
“Currently we are fundraising for a new chapel and workshop as well as additional equipment,” Marcus said, adding that named sponsorship of the cemetery is one of many philanthropic opportunities.
The new cemetery is geographically closer to neighbourhoods where the vast majority of Edmonton Jews now live. Former Chevra leaders Shim Laskin and Shelby Smordin, both of blessed memory, played major roles in securing the land during the mid-1990s. The new cemetery totals 30 acres, sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the Edmonton Jewish community for an estimated 200 years.
That is a powerful affirmation that the Edmonton Jewish community intends to pass its traditions from generation to generation, honouring the dead and embracing life as proud and engaged Jews and Edmontonians.
To make your tax deductible charitable contribution to the Chevra Kadisha, community members can contact Vice President Jeff Rubin at 780-909-3065 or make online donations at edmontonjewishcemetery.ca. To explore the possibility of becoming a Chevra volunteer, please contact Chevra Kadisha President David Marcus, or speak to any of the Chevra leadership cited in this article.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.