One of the Greatest Mitzvot

“The LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

That famous line from the book of Job is often recited at funerals by our clergy. I find it a powerful statement that death is a part of life. Death is something many don’t like to discuss. Our insightful Foundation Director, Dan Brandeis, often says that a donor is ready to talk about a legacy gift when they make the transition of saying, “if I die” to “when I die.”

I am sure that you think that the message today is about planned giving and our Foundation, but it is not. Rather, it is about our Federation’s work to try and take care of the needs of those who came before us and to preserve the expectations of care many of us have for our ultimate future. I am talking about our responsibility to uphold the Jewish tradition of maintaining and caring for our Jewish cemeteries.

I play a sort of game with people when I discuss the topic at hand, by asking, “How many Jewish cemeteries are there in our region?” The answers typically range from 4 to 20. The actual figure is approximately 75!! Some are connected to active congregations, while others were birthed from shuttered ones. Some have endowments and others have little to no money to ensure the long-term maintenance and care required. The question that came to our Federation’s mind: is there a rational way to look after all our cemeteries?

We formed a strong committee under the leadership of Jimmy Wagner to explore the issue and they, in turn, engaged a consultant who had helped build a communal model for cemetery care and maintenance in the Boston area. That committee developed a detailed business plan with strategy and milestones. Federation made a large $450,000 grant to kick off the effort and to hire the first full-time Executive Director for the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association (JCBA). He began his work just 18 months ago, and in that time, the number of cemeteries under the care of JCBA has grown from 11 to 26! Concurrently with the growth of cemeteries under management, the leadership of JCBA has been working diligently to build an endowment to pay for the administration of the effort and to help to support those cemeteries that do not have adequate endowment funds.

JCBA wants to continue to grow and to serve those who are in their eternal resting places. For those of you who have visited one of the 75 cemeteries, you know that their physical state is mixed, with some in great care and others in need of maintenance. We believe strongly in this kind of communal approach to resolving this inequity and have seen its success in several communities including Cincinnati and Cleveland. We hope more and more cemeteries join in this effort. 

One thing I often hear Rabbis say when I attend a funeral, and help to fill the grave with dirt, is that this act is one of the greatest mitzvot (good deeds/commandments) we can perform because the ones benefitting from our efforts cannot thank us. I feel similarly about our Federation strategy. It is one of the greatest mitzvot that our present Pittsburgh community can do, as those benefitting from our efforts cannot thank us.

If you have specific questions around JCBA, I know that their Executive Director Barry Rudel will be happy to hear from you.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, a happy Thanksgiving, and a happy Chanukah. Go Steelers!

Jeff Finkelstein

President & CEO

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