Ed Kass’s adult daughter Nina committed suicide in Michigan on New Year’s Day. Ed Kass flew in from California to bury her, and to mourn.
He knew that his daughter wanted to be buried near her grandparents, in a cemetery belonging to a nearby synagogue in Toledo, Ohio, called Congregation Etz Chayim. No one in the family was a member of the synagogue anymore, so Kass called to ask if he could bury his daughter there.
It’s a question often faced by synagogues: If burial plots are a perk of membership, what happens when a nonmember wants to be buried in the congregational cemetery? The Toledo synagogue’s response — asking for five years’ worth of back dues plus a burial fee — appears to be on the high end of what congregations usually ask. But large fees for mourning families, well above the cost of the plot, are far from unusual.
“It’s unfortunate, but the synagogue… is the owner of the cemetery,” said Stanley Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that owns and manages Jewish cemeteries in the Boston area. “If you want the privilege, they want the back dues. They view it as a fairness issue.”
Kaplan said that in Massachusetts, the back dues billed by the synagogues in return for burial rights costs are far higher than the going rate for a cemetery plot.
When he lived in Toledo in the 1980s, Kass was a member of Etz Chayim. He had, in fact, been principal of the congregation’s Sunday school. But he had since moved away. His daughter, who struggled with depression, had been jobless and penniless before she died. Kass is 70 now, newly retired and living on a fixed income.
Still, he agreed to pay the $4,000 in back dues, under what he says was an assurance from a synagogue official that the congregation would later forgive the debt on hardship grounds. Kass forked over $2,450 in burial fees and perpetual care funds, plus $500 toward the dues, and signed a document promising to pay the other $3,500. Nina was buried.
Days later, feeling burned, Kass decided to write a letter about his experience to the local Jewish paper, a newsletter put out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo.
“I agreed with the arrangement because I felt I had no other choice but to honor my daughter’s request,” Kass wrote. He charged that the synagogue’s actions, in forcing him to promise the payment and in the way it handled the exchange, had been improper. “They are not mentshlekh [decent],” he wrote.
Instead of publishing the letter, the local federation’s executive set up a meeting between Kass and the synagogue’s new president, Steven E. Marcus. At the meeting, Kass says, Marcus promised to relieve the debt. Marcus, a lawyer, told the Forward that he didn’t make any such promise, but rather invited Kass to send documentation to the synagogue board to prove that he was unable to pay.
Relations devolved from there. On June 16, Marcus sent Kass a letter telling him that he was barred from putting a headstone on his daughter’s grave. “Please be advised that until the balance… pursuant to the signed agreement is paid, no headstone or marker will be permitted on Nina’s grave,” Marcus wrote. “If you wish to proceed to Jewish civil court, I can contact the appropriate organizations in either Detroit and/or Cleveland to make arrangements for such. Otherwise, I would appreciate it if you would begin making your $100 per month payments as you had agreed to do.”
Kass told the Forward that he could pay the outstanding funds by dipping into his retirement account. But he’s angry. “I thought, asking somebody to pay five years of dues in order to bury somebody — it didn’t sit right with me,” Kass told the Forward.
Calls to other synagogues that own cemeteries suggest that fees range widely. But nearly all synagogues charge nonmembers more than they charge members for plots in their cemeteries. Etz Chayim’s demand merely seems to be higher than many.
Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York City, generally requires three years’ worth of retroactive dues, though it will accept nonmembers on only a case-by-case basis.
Some congregations charge flat fees. Beth Hillel Synagogue, in Bloomfield, Connecticut, charges members $1,750 per plot while charging nonmembers $2,350. Temple Israel, in Winter Springs, Florida, charges members $2,100 while charging nonmembers $2,400. New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue gives members a 10% discount off the price of a plot; nonmembers get no discount.
Richard Keller, who is president of Cleveland’s Ridge Road Cemetery Association — made up of four Cleveland synagogues and a burial society that jointly own a local cemetery — said that five years of back dues sounded excessive. His synagogue, Beth Israel — The West Temple, also in Cleveland, sells plots to nonmembers rather than having them pay back dues.
Marcus, who has been Etz Chayim’s president since January, said that charging five years of back dues has been his synagogue’s practice for decades.
“The rule in our shul… for decades has been, if you are to be buried, you have to be a member of our synagogue,” Marcus said. “There are occasions where individuals come… and want to be buried in that cemetery…. Our policy at Etz Chayim has always been, we don’t ask for someone to pay for the burial plot. But what we do is we ask… [for] five years of dues.”
Marcus said that the policy applied equally to members. If an individual has belonged to the synagogue for less than five years at his or her time of death, the difference must be paid before burial.
Marcus said that the synagogue has also long been willing to work with individuals who cannot pay dues. The synagogue’s confidential procedure requires those seeking relief from obligations to the congregation to submit financial information to a board committee. He said that neither he nor the official with whom Kass first discussed the burial could waive the fee on his own.
Kass and the synagogue appear to be at a standstill. An official with the Orthodox Union, of which Etz Chayim is a member, told the Forward that he was aware of the situation and is looking to get involved to help resolve it.
“I’ve been at the O.U. now for three years; this is definitely an anomaly,” said Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the O.U.’s director of community engagement. “There’s something lost in translation here that I’m trying to figure out.”
According to Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the problem may be not in the synagogue’s policy, but deep in the history of North American Jewish communal life. Some German synagogues founded in the 1840s, Freelander noted, existed first as burial societies and then only later as congregations. Burial functions have historically been seen as a key part of a synagogue’s role.
“The majority of congregations that have cemeteries, or sections of cemeteries, restrict burial to either members or relatives of members, or have a different fee structure for members [and] nonmembers,” Freelander said.
The problem arises not from the practice of privileging member burials, but from the way in which dues have grown since these policies were put in place. Five years of $800 per year membership dues is harder to swallow than, say, five years of $100 membership dues.
“When synagogue dues were low, this was an old and appropriate way to ensure lifelong membership in the congregation,” Freelander wrote in an email to the Forward. “Now that synagogue dues are far more expensive, the practice may feel onerous.”
Kass, for his part, is still figuring out his next step. “I just think what they wanted was too much,” he said. “I know I can’t put a headstone on my daughter’s grave.”
Additional reporting by Rachel X. Landes.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.