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A New Choice for Burial on the Main Line

November 25, 2009 By:
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A marker announcing a new burial area
It's no secret that the Jewish population of Lower Merion has grown by leaps and bounds over the course of several decades. And, little by little, pieces of the Jewish infrastructure, from synagogues to kosher restaurants to an eruv, have proliferated to keep up with the tides.

However, to purchase a plot at a Jewish cemetery for burial, residents of the area have had to drive miles -- to places such as Upper Darby, Jenkintown or Northeast Philadelphia.

Now the West Laurel Hill Cemetery -- a nonsectarian burial ground in Bala Cynwyd, which was incorporated in 1869 -- has announced plans to open a Jewish section some time next year.

The cemetery entrance is located on Belmont Avenue, about a mile north of City Avenue.

The first part slated to open at West Laurel Hill is a congregational plot for Lower Merion Synagogue, a 400-member-family Modern Orthodox congregation founded in 1954. Rabbi Avraham Shmidman, who has led the congregation for two years, noted that Lower Merion members have never had their own designated space for burial.

"People go in a lot of different directions. Some people have family plots in New Jersey. Some people are buried in Israel," Shmidman explained, just before taking part in a Nov. 19th groundbreaking ceremony for the Jewish section. "In the long-term plan for the synagogue, this will ultimately be something that will provide an important service to members."

West Laurel Hill, a private corporation -- which has Quaker roots and was founded around the same time as Laurel Hill Cemetery along Kelly Drive -- had approached the rabbi about the idea several months ago.

Shmidman made a point to note that many of the details still had to be worked out.

Pete Hoskins, president and CEO of the company, explained that about 2.5 acres out of 187 acres will be set aside for Jewish use. That's enough room for 1,500 burial sites; a little less than one-third of that space is being reserved for the Orthodox section.

The tree-lined area that's slated to become the Jewish section sits close to Belmont Avenue. Hoskins said that he will work closely with the Lower Merion Township Planning Department during the overhaul of the grounds to ensure that many of the trees remain in place, for both aesthetic (shade, history, quietude) and logistical reasons (water runoff, separation from traffic).

Other Congregations Welcome
Hoskins added that West Laurel Hill has been in touch with area synagogues from all denominations, and it's possible that they may announce another congregational plot soon.

He added that they do plan to cooperate with existing Jewish funeral homes, but that families would be able to choose West Laurel Hill's own funeral home as well.

Hoskins also hopes that the Jewish section becomes a place where unaffiliated Jewish families will turn, and that plots will be available for interfaith couples as well. (Non-Jews will explicitly not be allowed to be buried in the Orthodox section.)

"Our hope is to involve the whole range of Jewish families," said Hoskins, who is a member of Congregation Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Roxborough. (His wife is Jewish, though he is not.)

Shmidman, who will be advising West Laurel Hill throughout the process, said that, in many ways, the Lower Merion plot will function like a separate cemetery. A barrier will be built to demarcate the area -- from the non-Jewish area and from other common Jewish areas as well -- and a series of prayers will be said to initially consecrate the space.

The plan is for the site to be open in May.

This comes as part of the cemetery's effort to expand its business. Last year, for example, it introduced a "green" section, where people are interred without a casket or embalmment.

Eileen Perice, a vice president at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sachs Inc., said that Locustwood Cemetery in Cherry Hill, N.J., which also has a Jewish section, was the most recent space to open in the region. Locustwood's Jewish section was consecrated in 1994.

That's not to say that there's never been a Jewish burial space in the Lower Merion area.

In the 1980s, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne took over the maintenance of a nearby Jewish historic burial society, although it's been decades since the cemetery was in active use.

George Frank, an area resident who attends both Lubavitch of the Main Line in Merion Station and Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, remarked at the groundbreaking at West Laurel Hill that he's often come for a leisurely stroll on the picturesque grounds.

It's been a shame not to have a Jewish cemetery nearby -- the closest one is probably Har Nebo in Upper Darby -- he said, because "there are so many Jews on the Main Line." 

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