Friday, December 19, 2014 Kislev 27, 5775

The Business of Shiva

July 12, 2012 By:
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Karen Cooke (left) and Shelley Marine founded an event-planning business geared toward mourners.

Main Line moms Shelley Marine and Karen Cooke, longtime friends and fellow Hadassah fundraisers, made a habit of helping friends whenever death claimed a loved one -- a task that unfortunately became more common as they grew older.

It wasn't until Marine lost her first parent eight years ago that she realized just how painful planning a shiva could be for the mourner.

"I didn't want to be caught up in all the minutia that had to be dealt with," remembered Marine, a Bala Cynwyd resident with a degree in accounting who taught preschool before becoming a full-time mom. "Had I had somebody to do it for me, I would've been able to start the grieving process much earlier."

With that seed of an idea, Marine and Cooke set about translating their event-planning skills into a concierge service for those dealing with death. After studying with their rabbi at Har Zion Temple and dozens of meetings with funeral homes, hospice directors and a small-business consultant, they launched "In Time of Need" about 10 months ago (intimeofneedusa.com).

It took a while to get up and running because there were no other local businesses in the field to look to for guidance, said Cooke, 55, of Penn Valley. "A lot of it is our gut -- us trying to figure things out and see what works."

They might be unique in this area, but Internet searches reveal a handful of similar Jewish-themed businesses around the country, including one in Los Angeles and another in New York.

Like those companies, Cooke and Marine promise to help families with anything from coordinating with funeral homes to bereavement calls, so all mourners need to do is show up. They'll take clients from any background, though they specialize in preparing homes for shiva, the seven-day period after burial when family and friends traditionally gather to remember the loved one, offer food and join in prayer.

Just one shiva reception can require catering, ordering paper goods and any number of other things "you don't even know that you're going to think of," Cooke said. "It's very easy to understand how quickly you can become very overwhelmed -- and here you are emotionally at your worst. People can almost become paralyzed, especially if there aren't any plans."

The two women balk at giving a cost for their services, saying that it all depends on how much clients want them to do. They say they could be hired to accept a food tray delivery for as little as $36, while coordinating other services would cost much more. Aside from organizing the shiva, they offer add-ons, like arranging transportation for out-of-town guests, shopping for funeral attire or stocking the fridge with meals for the week.

So far, they've had six clients. Joseph Levine & Sons funeral home referred Tori Wolgin of Penn Valley to In Time of Need after her 38-year-old sister-in-law died unexpectedly in May.

Wolgin, 42, said she and her husband used various catering services in the past for house parties or receptions after their sons' circumcisions, but there was something comforting about having a Jewish business take care of the shiva.

"We knew because they were Jewish everything would be handled in a very specific way," Wolgin said. In addition to covering mirrors and setting out prayerbooks, the women thought of things she hadn't, she said, like putting a pitcher at the door for those who wanted to do the ritual post-funeral hand washing before entering the home.

"They helped us with everything," Wolgin said. Between them and the funeral home, she said, "we weren't worried about getting anything done."

Given the way society has already changed, Marine said she's convinced more people will be looking for their services in the future.

"Years ago, nobody thought, 'Who's going to mow my lawn?' It was your son," Marine said. "Nowadays, it's a landscaper."

People often assume family or friends will step up to help in the most difficult times, Marine continued, but sometimes they don't. Maybe children who live out of town have to plan for a parent who dies, or maybe people just want the option to be able to say, " 'This is something I don't want to think about, I want to think about my loved one.' "

The women said they hope to eventually build their venture into a full-time enterprise, though they acknowledge that it will be challenging given the delicate and last-minute nature of the job. Because Judaism mandates that burials happen as quickly as possible, Cooke said, they may have less than 24 hours to spring into action.

Marketing is also tricky, they said, because they have to be careful how they describe their services. As Marine put it, "It's hard to say, 'When somebody dies, give us a call.' "

Despite the inherently sad nature of their business, Marine said ultimately she feels like she's doing a mitzvah.

"People have no idea what to do when somebody dies. If we can take one little thing that you don't have to deal with, it's done."

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