For Rabbi Alan Turetz of Chestnut Hill’s Temple Emeth, the creation of a traditional Jewish cemetery is not just about filling the needs of his congregation, but it’s also about “offering comfort and solace to the entire Jewish community.”
Turetz and about 30 members of the congregation and guests walked the perimeter of Or Emet Cemetery last Sunday morning, consecrating the land as a traditional Jewish burial ground in a dedication ceremony filled with memories of the past and hope for the future.
“We have a profound belief that this land here is where this world and the next meet in a silent embrace,” he said.
Or Emet, meaning genuine light, built among West Roxbury’s Baker Street Jewish cemeteries, is the first traditional Jewish cemetery opened in Boston in decades, according to Harvey Albert, Temple Emeth treasurer and one of two men who headed the cemetery building project.
Nearly two years ago, Beit Olam East was opened on Concord Road in Wayland as an interfaith Jewish cemetery, with two-thirds of the plots reserved for Jews wishing to be buried alongside non-Jewish family members.
“There has been a need for interfaith cemeteries, but there has also been a need on the other end as well,” said Albert. Or Emet, which is now ready for burials, is reserved for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform members of the Jewish faith.
For past Temple Emeth president Mervin Gray, being buried among people of his faith is very important.
“It is a continuation of the feeling of brotherhood, being responsible for each other, and feeling the close bond that Jews have for each other,” he said.
Sixty years ago Temple Emeth purchased two pieces of land in the Baker Street complex, which was first opened in the 1920s, quickly developing one into a traditional burial ground with 2,250 graves that is now completely full. The second site, just down the road from the first, contained 10 feet of rocky ledge that made it difficult for building.
“The temple considered building the second [cemetery] for 20 years, but put the idea back into the files over and over again,” said Peter Shapiro, Cemetery Building Committee chair man.
Two years ago the temple had to turn away many callers asking to purchase burial plots in a traditional Jewish cemetery.
“Most of the new cemeteries coming on line have been interfaith,” Albert said.
Members of the temple worked with the larger Jewish community, including Jewish funeral homes, to determine whether there was a need for another traditional cemetery, found there was, and moved forward with plans to turn the rocky ledge into a suitable burial ground.
Over the past 18 months the rock was blasted, crushed, mixed with soil, and put back to level the site, which is now covered by perfectly manicured grass and surrounded by hemlock trees.
Pillars marking the entrance to the cemetery are engraved: The soul of man is the candle of God.
The committee took care to include elements of Jewish burial tradition. A stone urn holds tiny stones to be used by visitors to mark their presence at graves, and a hand-washing station is set up to symbolically leave death behind as visitors exit.
The dedication ceremony also drew on Jewish tradition and history. Turetz said taking care of those who have died is a commandment of the Jewish faith and integral in Jews’ respect for life.
“It is emblematic of the entire Jewish tradition,” he said. “We are following in the most venerable footsteps imaginable.”
He also spoke of the Jewish poet and martyr Hannah Szenes, who parachuted into Hungary to help rescue Jews being detained by the Germans for deportation to the death camp at Auschwitz.
She was captured, tortured, and sentenced to death by firing squad in 1944, dying at the age of 23, he said.
“Her remains were brought to Israel and buried in a cemetery where other Jewish heroes are buried,” he said.
The new cemetery also has special meaning for Temple Emeth president Andrea Werner Insoft.
“We just try and take care of each other and serve the people who came before us and those who are coming next,” she said.
“My grandfather is buried right there,” she said gesturing toward Temple Emeth’s first cemetery.
“Seeing his wish come true, it’s a full circle.”