Rabbi Harry offers facilitated encounter session on ‘mixed burial’

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Dear Ones,

We are a congregational family poised to consider a watershed question concerning our historic cemetery. In 2018 after considerable study, consultation, meditation and introspection, I wrote a teshuvah (rabbinic response) in which I conclude that it would be permissible for the congregation to create a separate space in the Congregation Emanu-El cemetery where Jews and non-Jews alike may be buried together. Now the Congregation must decide whether to actualize this ruling. As we are a democratic organization, the Board of Directors will present this question for a vote at a Special General Meeting of the congregation.

Since the publication of my teshuvah, and the preliminary drafts from our ad hoc ‘mixed burial’ policy sub-committee, the Board of Directors and I have learned that there are some very strong opinions regarding the ‘mixed burial’ of Jews and non-Jews. I have met with congregants and listened to their reactions regarding the proposed change to the use our historic cemetery. Regardless of their beliefs about the future operation of our cemetery, these congregants expressed deeply held emotional, visceral and meaningful opinions.

There are congregants who are concerned about the irreversibility of this proposed change, i.e., once we commence ‘mixed burial’ we cannot revert in the future to the present ‘only Jews’ status. For some, the opposition and fear of ‘mixed burial’ is not based on halakhic/religious grounds but on a concern about our stewardship responsibility, i.e., they are not opposed to ‘mixed burial’ but are opposed to ‘mixed burial in our historic cemetery’. They are concerned that ‘mixed burial’ is a betrayal of those buried in the cemetery for whom this practice would have been inconceivable and with whom we have a sacred pact to care for this space. As we have no way of gaining their consensus, some congregants consider the proposed change in use a breach of trust.

There are congregants who feel deeply that creating a space for ‘mixed burial’ has a critical place in the evolution of our congregation. The historical attitude toward non-Jews as ‘other’ or as ‘less than other’ does not fit our congregation and community. There are congregants who are married to non-Jews who play an active role in our congregational life and feel deeply connected to our congregation but who for a host of personal reasons do not feel they can convert. There is a sense that if we are truly open to interfaith, multifaith families we need to create a space for non-Jews to be buried with their loved ones in our historic cemetery. There are congregants who have buried family and close friends in our cemetery who wish to be buried near them along with their non-Jewish spouses. There are congregants moved by the aesthetics of our cemetery who wish to be buried there with their non-Jewish spouses. One stirring response to the idea of not accepting a space for ‘mixed burials’ was that it sends the message that the body of a non-Jewish partner contaminates the cemetery.

I am sharing these opinions with you because I want everyone to understand how urgently some congregants felt about this question of mixed burial in our cemetery. As your rabbi, I want to ensure that we are able to move on as a congregational family regardless of the outcome of this vote, that we are stronger and more connected as a congregation than any change in our cemetery policy can affect.

After considerable thought and consultation, I am offering the congregation a facilitated encounter session on “creating a space for ‘mixed burial’ in our cemetery”. The only goal for the exercise is for us, as congregants, to witness the intensity and emotional depth that some hold around this question. This encounter will not be a chance to try to convince anyone to change their viewpoint; it will be an exercise in heartfelt listening. The encounter will give those who feel strongly about this question an opportunity to witness others who hold an opposing view. We will only speak for ourselves and we will not respond to one another. I ask all who are interested, especially those with strong feelings on the question, to mark your calendar for Sunday, February 17, 2019 at 4 pm at the synagogue. To prepare yourself, you should think about what you might personally feel if the vote does not go the way you hope. Change or lack of change generates perceptions of loss. We all feel connected to Emanu-El because we are part of a very soulful, dynamic and hopefully sensitive, caring congregation. I have faith that we can work together through this sensitive and somewhat controversial question, without divisiveness. It is my hope that witnessing one another brings tenderness and supports unity.

B’virkat Shalom with blessings for peace and wholeness,

Rabbi Harry

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An inclusive, warm, and progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, B.C.

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