“If you really want to see the whole span of the life and death of a community, you go to the Homestead Cemetery. And there laid out is the whole history of the community.” — Irwin Gross
The mitzvah of Kavod HaMet, respect for the dead, is an important one, but one most of us encounter infrequently. Today we engage with Judaism’s end-of-life requirements only when we make arrangements in advance or enact these unfamiliar rituals after a death. In all these cases we can rely on professional funeral homes, as well as reliable cemetery committees and other synagogue support groups, to not only to guide us through the steps we must take, but also to perform some of the most challenging mitzvot on our behalf at a safe remove. This level of organization makes death no less difficult for us, but our Homestead forebears would consider our circumstances a luxury. Even after they created the basic structures required for showing respect for the dead — a Jewish cemetery and a chevra kadisha to manage it (literally “sacred fellowship,” but always used to refer to burial societies) — their numbers were too small to offload the responsibility to “others.” There were no “others,” only themselves.
As such, for fledging Jewish communities in the U.S., the loss of one of their own was often the first time they were forced to address the absence of any religious infrastructure. For this reason most small-town Jewish communities founded their cemetery before their first synagogue. 2 Homestead did things in the opposite order, though to be fair the impetus to create the congregation was Kavod HaMet-related — namely, the inability to organize a minyan for one man to say kaddish on his father’s yahrzeit. But whaddaya know, just after they received their charter in May 1894 their first president died! He had to be buried in the Jewish cemetery at McKees Rocks thirteen miles down river, and the surviving officers resolved to remedy the situation. 3 Unfortunately, at that time their already small numbers were shrinking as a result of the lousy economy, so it took a couple years to raise the $470 to acquire a plot of land two-and-a-half miles away in Homeville. The synagogue’s historian later related that it was my great-grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps, and the historian’s brother, I.S. Grossman, who consummated the deal on behalf of the congregation in March 1896.
Now they had the ability to bury their own dead, but it took a while for business to pick up. For the remainder of the 1890s there was only one adult burial, though possibly ten or more burials of young children and infants buried in the children’s section by the front fence. The remainder of the first decade brought just eleven more burials of adults and older children, though there were perhaps twice as many young children. From 1906-1914, when more data becomes available, there were 25 more burials of adults and older children and at least as many burials of young children. 4
As you can see in the image above, they started filling in the adult section from right-to-left, which seems backwards to us only because we English speakers read and write in the opposite direction they did in Yiddish. They began each row at what was then the right edge of the cemetery, but as the inset birds-eye view of the cemetery shows, these early graves are now in the middle, because the cemetery today is much larger than it was at the beginning. (If you want to see these early graves next time you visit the cemetery, walk down the main path and look to your right for the tall stone shaped like the stump of a tree about three-quarters of the way down. Look down the hill from there, and a couple rows below you’ll see an empty area with some broken stones around it. These graves and the ones around them are the earliest in the cemetery.)
There’s a story in my family that my great-grandfather recognized from the start that the original plot of land was too small and wanted the shul to purchase the adjoining field, too.5 That expansion didn’t happen until September 1919, when 2.3 more acres were added at a cost of $1500. You can see in the image at right how the original cemetery land is dwarfed by the latter addition. The congregation had additional opportunities to buy more land in 1937 and 1974, but nothing came of it — and perhaps just as well. 6 Today the cemetery has around 800 graves, primarily of Homesteaders, but also about 55-60 from Congregation Ahavos Zedeck of Hazelwood, and room for plenty more. 7
Very little information about the cemetery survives prior to 1913, and especially prior to 1902. 8 After acquiring the land, they would have had to clear at least part of it of, but what else they did we can only speculate. At some fairly early date they did try to ensure uniformity, judging by a 1904 payment for “plan of cemetery”and a 1908 payment for “survey cemetery,” and presumably there was a fence by 1903, since in August of that year their financial records record the earliest payment for replacing it. Starting in October 1906 they began employing someone outside of the congregation to maintain the grounds and dig graves, though it appears members of the congregation continued to fill in here. 9 In addition, they also erected a building on the cemetery, which they called an ohel (chapel), where bodies were prepared and funerals held. The earliest evidence for the ohel comes from this newspaper article:
JEWISH CEMETERY BEING IMPROVED
A new receiving house is being erected by Contractor Edward Rowe, of Homestead on the Jewish cemetery at Homeville. The fence around the cemetery is also being replaced by a new one. The ladies auxiliary of Rodef Sholem have contributed liberally to have these improvements made.
(The Daily Messenger, 11/15/1907)
“A new receiving house”– does this mean the first such structure, or a replacement for a previous one? Again, we’ll never know. 10
Over the next decades the Chevra Kadisha‘s work, as far as maintaining the cemetery was concerned, continued these themes: maintaining the ohel building and continuing to fence, survey, and prepare new ground. Although the additional cemetery ground was purchased in 1919, the greater need at the time was for an improved ohel, which was dedicated on September 17, 1922. 11 The new ohel had three rooms — one for preparing the bodies for burial, one for conducting the funeral service, and one for supplies. This expensive project required significant support from the members. The names of those who contributed were inscribed on the interior and exterior of the building, as well as on a large donor tablet which was updated for decades after. If you look closely at the exterior of the building, you can make out some of these names.
Despite this fundraising, the project drew so heavily from the congregation’s savings that throughout the 1920s when the subject of fencing and surveying the 1919 ground came up, it was continually deferred until the Chevra Kadisha finished repaying it ohel debts. 12 Thirteen years after the dedication, Harry M. Jacobson, then chairman of the Chevra Kadisha, declared the ohel “too small to accommodate the people who attend funerals, especially in bad weather, the rooms are so small that they are easily overcrowded, and standing room is at a premium, it makes it very inconvenient for those who have to stay outside in the rain,” so he had “extensive plans” “drawn free of charge” to “extend the Ohel about twenty feet.” 13 Now, where have we heard this before?! Both the original synagogue and the original cemetery were also deemed too small not long after each was established, but only in this case did no expansion follow. The congregation felt the money ought to go towards the synagogue’s mortgage. 14
Throughout the 30s and 40s conversations about improving it continued, and the project seemed closest to realization in the late 40s when my Keizler cousins offered to contribute generously to ensure the project finally happened, but in January 1951 the project was deferred once again, this time “because of the world situation” (presumably the Korean War), and in 1953 they settled instead for “extensive repairs.” 15 And so the 1922 ohel stands to this day, many more rounds of repairs later. As people transitioned to using funeral homes in Pittsburgh, it stopped being used for burial preparations and funerals in the early 1960s. 16 Today it is rented out as house. (It is not and never was the home of the caretaker.)
Here I must interrupt this history to make a distressing omission: This article is the first I’ve published in which I know I am not telling you everything I could. From 1913-1925 the Chevra Kadisha maintained its records entirely in Yiddish, amounting to 190 handwritten pages that relate a lot of history and ritual that I am unable even to read. One of many burning questions I hope these records will one day reveal to us is whether, as the later English records suggest, no portion of the 1919 ground was fenced or surveyed until more than a decade later, and if so, why? In the spring of 1931 they at last began serious discussions about grading, paving, and fencing as much ground as their finances would permit (as well as repairing a bridge?! there had been a bridge?!?!). 17 Under the leadership of my great-grandfather’s brother, Alexander L. Hepps, then the chairman of the Chevra Kadisha, this work took place in 1931-1932, and the group rewarded him with a signet ring for his efforts. He died of pneumonia contracted in February 1933; the family story is that he got sick from working on the cemetery in the freezing cold.
Even then only part of the 1919 ground was added; incorporating more came up for discussion in late 1945, though they couldn’t begin work that summer as they had hoped, having encountered “difficulty to get bids for project planned, due to scarcity of building materials required by contractors” (related to the aftermath of WWII, I’d guess). 18 Over the next couple years the ground was slowly cleared, graded, fenced, seeded, and surveyed into plots, and in the summer of 1949 the new section was formally dedicated. 19 More work was done in the late 1950s to survey another “new area” of the cemetery. 20 Even today not all the land has been cleared for use. The open area where the road curves was cleared as part of laying it in 2010, and the woods around the perimeter are part of the cemetery as well. 21
And all these projects are just the major ones that took place! Even without new burials and setting stones, the work of a cemetery is constant and ongoing — there is always landscaping to be done and repairs to be made. When it comes to the day-in/day-out chores to keep the cemetery beautiful, one man more than any other is associated with the upkeep: Harry Seiavitch (1883-1976). In the spring of 1938 he was elected caretaker of the cemetery, three years after he began as shammes of the shul, and he continued in both roles — with the help of his family as he grew older — until his death. 22 During the warm months he’d work in the cemetery daily, walking the two-and-a-half miles from his house carrying his bucket and tools. 23 Not for nothing his philosophy, “Not to rust away, just wear away”: he dug the graves by hand until his mid-70s! 24 He is a large part of why in 1957 the cantor of Shaare Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh, “remarked that the Homestead cemetery was the most beautiful he has ever seen.” 25
When you visit the cemetery today, all of this activity feels so remote. The cemetery is a quiet place, and though in a residential neighborhood, surprisingly secluded. But the peaceful feeling the cemetery evokes conceals its dynamic history. For us the cemetery matters because it is the final resting place of our loved ones, but for them it was also meaningful as the result of all these improvement and expansion projects, which they actively supported and watched transform this small, sacred slope. Every section of chain link fence, every brick in the ohel, every concrete slab in the roadway, every tidy row of graves, every gentle curve in the hillside, every plant nestled in the coping of a grave, ever tree that shades a resting place, and every stump of a tree that is no more — all these features bear the imprint of everyone who labored to fulfill the ancient obligation to make the cemetery a place of comfort for the dead as well as the living.
This history explains why hand-in-hand with the establishment of a Jewish cemetery always came the formation of the Chevra Kadisha to oversee all this work. In Homestead various Chevra Kadisha records note its date of organization as December 1911 or January 1912, but an October 1905 expense for “chevra Süde” (their annual dinner) suggests it had existed previously in some form. 26 However formal or informal the group was in the early years, people had to perform these rituals, and entries like 1903 payments for “tachrichem” (shrouds) and “Tahare brett” (the wooden board used for tahara, the ritual washing of the body) mark the earliest burials for which contemporary records survive. 27
Even after the group formally organized, it remained a sub-committee of the synagogue, though their operations were far more explicit, extensive, and weighty than other sub-committees. They had their own rules (in Yiddish, though later English minutes give glimpses into what they mandate). People paid dues to be a member in addition to their synagogue dues. Officers were elected annually. Surplus income was to be turned over to the congregation every six months. Naturally the congregation’s Board of Directors frequently complained that the Chevra Kadisha wasn’t run properly and required more oversight… even though often the same people were involved in both places?! Naturally my great-grandfather thought thought the solution was to take it over, too. (His motion “was declared, illegal, and ill advised.” That summer his brother began managing the long-overdue expansion project, so all’s well that ends well!) 28
A major reason for the complaints was that the Chevra Kadisha stood as perhaps the most significant business operation of the synagogue. Members of the congregation in good standing, their Jewish spouses, and young children were entitled to free burial ground (with complicated rules governing widows, since women could not be members). The heirs of members who had fallen behind in their dues were required to pay up, which seems heartless until you realize that this solution was far cheaper than buying a plot outright as non-members had to. For members and non-members there were alternating rows, and some members got angry when the two were mixed. 29 Beyond the ground, everyone was charged a $25 stone deposit, refunded after it was set, and additional burial expenses (see list at left) were tabulated based on what the family could afford, with leniency shown to the poor. 30 It was up to the cemetery committee to make these determinations; sometimes tight time pressure made it impossible to convene everyone necessary, hence the congregation’s frustration when they felt the committee had not correctly apportioned the charges according to the family’s perceived resources. Larger negotiations took place when surviving spouses wished to reserve adjacent plots or when families bought group plots. In most cases family plots consisted of a line of graves otherwise indistinguishable from the general cemetery, but a small number of families — the Friedlanders, Jacobsons, Seiavitches, Keizlers, and A.L. Heppses — have discrete plots. The general upkeep of the cemetery did not come cheap, but the committee almost always had funds to transfer back to the congregation at the prescribed intervals to fund its activities.
Tsedaka from loved ones of the deceased also funded the cemetery’s operations, following Jewish tradition. The most significant source came from the annual collection at the cemetery in the weeks preceding Rosh Hashana, a traditional time for cemetery visitations. Every year to this very day the Chevra Kadisha would notify the congregation of the days that they will sit at the cemetery to greet visitors, usually the two Sundays before Rosh Hashana. It is for this reason, as I learned from landscape architect Alan London, that the cemetery is planted with sedum spectabile, a plant that flowers annually at this very time of year. The rabbi would sit as well in order to recite the memorial prayer for the deceased. Rabbi Jack Segal, who served the congregation in the mid-1950s, told me that typically there is a communal service to recite the prayer once on behalf of everyone, but in Homestead congregants would lead him up and down the hill for him to recite it graveside for all their loved ones! The Chevra Kadisha‘s financial records are filled with long lists of relatives who visited the cemetery and what they donated. The congregation clearly took this obligation seriously.
Everything I’ve written so far must feel generally familiar because it reflects what we see — landscaped cemetery grounds surrounded by a fence and accompanied by a small chapel — as well as what we’ve experienced — funerals, unveilings, visitations, donations, bills. But Homestead’s Chevra Kadisha, for the first half of its existence, was much more than a cemetery management committee. In a period before funeral homes were commonly used, they were also responsible for the behind-the-scenes work of performing the rituals critical to ensuring that every Yiddishe neshome, Jewish soul, would find peace.
From what I have encountered, even learned Jews today have only vague notions about what these rituals consist of. They are at the heart of the mitzvah of Kavod HaMet. According to tradition, from the moment a person dies, the chevra kadisha is needed. The body cannot be alone, so members serve as shomrim (“watchers”), taking shifts to sit nearby reciting psalms, and 3-4 other members, called misaskim (or mitaskim, “those who deal with”), prepare it for burial. (In Homestead, this happened in the ohel.) They perform tahara, washing the body in both cleansing and ritually purifying ways; dress it in tachrichim, muslin or linen burial shrouds; and place it in the aron, an unadorned wooden coffin with no metal of any kind, doing their work in silence except for necessary conversation and the proscribed prayers. All of this work has to be done as quickly as possible for the burial to take place within twenty-four hours.
Hearing about these steps may be emotional and squeamish, and today in communities of any size, one needn’t concern oneself with such uncomfortable details, but in the early years Homestead was a community of no size, and so many our ancestors served in some fashion — men and women. This group was the only synagogue body with female members, and while men managed all the business affairs, there was a set of female officers alongside the male. From what I can tell, it was the one area of organized, synagogue life where the women had autonomy over their own affairs. 31 Inside of the ohel they performed tahara on their deceased sister in utter seclusion. A woman might step outside to ask the rabbi a question, but the rabbi was not permitted to enter. Inside the women were on their own to perform these rituals. When the door of the ohel opened, they departed with a sealed coffin.
With respect to Homestead I have little insight into what percentage of the community or even Chevra Kadisha members participated. In many places women of child-bearing age do not prepare children, and no one prepares one’s own family members. Otherwise, in an Orthodox congregation all observant adults are eligible to participate as shomrim and misaskim. One gets the sense from the records that while everyone had to take a turn as a shomer, the misaskim were a small sub-committee of the Chevra Kadisha itself. 32 The work obviously required training, so a person couldn’t just step in. I suspect that for as long as Homestead’s Chevra Kadisha performed taharot, the steps they followed remained fairly consistent despite the sometimes-controversial introduction of modern innovations like sponges and rubber aprons. 33 The truth is, while the meeting minutes and financial logs often refer to this work in a general sense, it never seems to have been discussed in its particulars during Chevra Kadisha meetings. It was intimate in every sense of the word. If ever such details came up, a sense of propriety — or perhaps just relevance — prevented the secretary from recording what was said. As a result, one of the very few insights into who did what and when and how comes not from the synagogue records, but from a family memoir:
The women would meet to sew shrouds, the plain white burial garments. While Sarah Hiedovitz was very active, many of those sewing meetings were held at the home of Harry Seiavitch. [Harry’s daughter] Ruth Seiavitch commented that with shrouds, “One size fits all AND you can’t take it back!”
–Linda Jacobson Daniels 34
Other than the replacement of handmade shrouds with manufactured ones, what I’ve discussed so far is pretty much still what happens today in traditional burials. Tahara, as with most Jewish practices, derives largely from what halacha, traditional Jewish law, mandates — but then there is the accretion of folk practices that take on the force of law. Here are some of the fascinating traditions that became part of The Way Things Were Done in Homestead, represented by two passages from the Chevra Kadisha meeting minutes with which I spent more time than perhaps all the rest of the minutes put together!
At the last two funerals there were some irregularities in the services. Mechila beten was omitted, they go against the orthodox customs and [Vice Pres. MD Weis] can not stand for it. Zeduka Tazel mimuwes is not conducted properly, & so forth – the earth is not to be thrown on the coffin after Zeduk Hadin [a prayer, “Justification of Divine Judgement”] is said but before it is recited.
–June 30, 1927 35
I will skip discussing the last irregularity about the prayer because he’s right, they did it in the wrong order, and the service is the way it is. Also seemingly straightforward is the omission of mechila beten (Yiddish for asking forgiveness): they skipped a step that everyone does. The misaskim are supposed to ask forgiveness of the deceased both before they begin tahara “for anything that [they] may inadvertently do…which is not respectful to the [deceased]” and after they carry out the coffin “if [they] did not treat [the deceased] with all due respect.” 36 But how would anyone know if they forgot? The first prayer is recited in the privacy of the tahara room, and the second one usually in the presence only of whomever is overseeing the funeral. The answer is that traditionally tahara is supposed to be done as close to the burial as possible, and Homestead took this mandate so seriously that, according to Rabbi Segal their practice was to do tahara in one room of the ohel while the funeral guests waited in the other! Presumably when the misaskim walked out with the coffin, many were present to observe how they concluded their work — including an irate M.D. Weis. 37
More esoteric is the second of the three irregularities. The Hebrew words Tsedaka tazil mimavet, as we’d transliterate them today, are a saying from Proverbs which means, “Charity saves from death.” 38 Here these words stand for a specific custom in which someone, often the shammes of the Chevra Kadisha, walked in front of the procession to the grave crying this phrase and shaking the tsedaka box to solicit donations. 39 From the earliest records and for decades afterwards, the synagogue’s financial books include numerous entries in the income column that read “Zeduka Tazil mimuwes” with the sum collected. This custom was important to the congregation; when at the 11/8/1936 meeting “Dr JW Moss proposed to do away with the collection of ‘Zeduka Tazil Mimawes,'” the challenge was overturned. “This was left as before, this custom is to remain.” 40
Considering that in 1927 the congregation was already thirty-three years old, Weis had an already lengthy period of consistent practice to back up his complaints about the recent alterations. Three decades after that, the minutes record a more significant challenge to the old ways of doing things — this time Rabbi Segal himself, then their new, young rabbi, born and bred in Brooklyn and recently ordained there in an Orthodox yeshiva.
Rabbi Jack Segal was called on and he had several motions that he brought before the audience. A motion was carried to omit the rituals of using ^ sprinkling eggs in water on deceased, and ^ the placing of twigs ^ in hands of deceased during the preparing of a body for burial. The placing of a glass of water with or without a towel in the home during the Shiva period will be omitted.
–January 22, 1956 41
A family memoir preserves the objections of an eighty-year old congregant who immigrated from Lithuania in the early 1900s, one of the congregation’s religious mainstays who served as one of the misaskim. Rabbi Segal, this family later recalled,
had ritual differences with the congregation elders, particularly Uncle Benny Seiavitch [Harry’s brother]. The first confrontation was over the burial traditions “shpritzing” (sprinkling the body with egg and wine mixture) and “geploc” (placing of twigs with the body so that the twigs will grow to crutches to support the stiffened body at the time of resurrection). Uncle Benny told him that the traditions of the Homestead Congregation would be here long after he was gone!
–Linda Jacobson Daniels 42
To elaborate on the family’s understanding, it may be that egg symbolizes the “revolving wheel of fortune in this world,” or that it distinguishes Jewish bodies, or that it hastens the return of the body to the earth. The twigs, “gepelekh,” may also be “little wooden forks” that will enable the dead to burrow from their gravesites to Israel at the time of Resurrection. 43
This disagreement wasn’t about the shul becoming too liberal. The rabbi’s objection was likely that modern Americans needn’t carry on superstitious, Old World customs. What Seiavitch emphasized is that minhag k’mo halacha, customs take on the status of law over time. These rituals, foolish as they may have seemed to Rabbi Segal, had long been minhag ha’makom, the custom of the place. Although not required by Orthodoxy, Orthodox tradition supported keeping them in place.
My heart breaks to realize that despite Seiavitch’s confidence, only three weeks after he died, Rabbi Segal’s motion to omit these rituals carried. But although they were no longer part of Homestead’s practice, both customs are still practiced. I learned from Stefanie Strauss Small, a member of the Orthodox chevra kadisha in Pittsburgh, that shpritzing is commonly done just on the forehead (usually with just egg or egg and water), while gepelekh she saw done just once in her experience.
If the eggs and twigs haven’t thoroughly surprised you, the third custom Rabbi Segal had the congregation omit is by far the strangest — the glass of water with or without a towel. From what I’ve found, there were widespread customs related to pouring out open containers of water around the place where the person died, because the Angel of Death may have rinsed his knife in one of them. In an inversion of these fears, some placed a glass of water with a piece of the burial shroud in the shiva house specifically to enable the Angel of Death to wash and dry his sword. An alternate explanation is that they were actually for the soul of the deceased to cleanse itself. 44 I have not been able to find anyone aware of this custom today.
(Update June 2022: Even when I wrote the above, I found the explanations I had researched unconvincing, and I remained confused. It took until the synagogue massacre on October 27, 2018 for me to understand: we want the Angel of Death to clean his sword so he will kill no more. During the weeks after the shooting, as people all over the region left flowers and stones and cards and candles and other items at the synagogue, I wanted to leave a pitcher of water—both as a sort of prayer for our devastated community, and as a specific remembrance for the Homestead Hebrew who was one of the kedoshim (holy martyrs). I could not. The simple errand of going to a store during that period was too much for me.)
I suspect that if I could read the earlier Yiddish minutes, I would have some insight into when and how these practices came to be part of Homestead’s minhag. The main source I’ve found to explain them focuses on the Russian Pale of Settlement exclusively, but in the early years the Homestead Jewish community was primarily made up of German- and Hungarian-speaking Hungarians, who were religiously and culturally quite different from the Russians (though still Orthodox). 45 So, who brought over which customs? Tsedaka tazil mi’mavet appears in the congregation records before the influx of Russians and was subsequently defended by one of the early Hungarian arrivals, but the eggs and twigs were defended by a member of one of the first Russian families. Were these customs widespread even in parts of Europe less noted for their superstitious outlook? If not, then how did one Chevra Kadisha consolidate diverse traditions to bring peace to the families of such a diverse group of mourners?
The earlier Yiddish minutes might also provide some basis for evaluating whether those who supported these customs believed in the need for them or were simply honoring tradition. The only hint of an answer to that question comes from Louis Averbach’s oral history, which suggests that in the mid-1920s, when the following incident happened, some really did harbor deep superstitions about the way the world operated:
This one particular year for some reason or other, a number of the elderly Jewish people died. Now, they’re all going to die eventually, some die today, tomorrow, next week, next month and so on, but in a comparatively short period of time, there was an unusual number of them that had died. And now, the older Jewish people, who were somewhat superstitious, felt that there was something wrong. That there was some punishment from God. They actually believed it. And they went to see Rabbi Goldberg. Rabbi Goldberg was supposed to come up with some kind of a prayer.
What happened after that, I don’t know, but I do know that it was considered an event from God, that something had gone wrong ’cause so many of them had died in a comparatively short time. And they felt something had to be done about it. Or whether there’s a prayer for it, I don’t know whether there was or not, I don’t know what happened. 46
A less superstitious, but also long-standing tradition Homestead’s Chevra Kadisha perpetuated is that of the annual seudah, or banquet meal, to celebrate the great mitzvah that is theirs to perform. The date Homestead chose, the 15th of Kislev (9 days before the start of Chanukah) is associated with Lithuanian communities. 47 The Ladies’ Aid/Sisterhood prepared the meal, and to cover the costs attendees paid a small charge, except for the misaskim, who dined for free. Aside from the meal, they used the evening as a general meeting where they would discuss outstanding business, hear the annual report, make speeches, and elect new officers. Naturally there were religious overtones as well, not only from the rabbi’s remarks reminding them of why they were gathered, but also from his chanting of the memorial prayer for the dead, but at least in the minutes, if not the actual execution of the evening, they seem overshadowed. This event always got a big attendance and took place probably until 1969, which makes it the longest-lived of all these traditions in Homestead. 48
In the end Uncle Benny’s promise to Rabbi Segal was only partially met. All of these curious practices outlived his generation and exist to this day, but Homestead’s particular approach, of course, did not, for reasons neither Uncle Benny nor Rabbi Segal could control.
Every other story I tell about Homestead has a clear ending: here is how this group ended, here is how this family moved away, here is how this person died, here is how these objects were sold or archived or given away or lost. But for Homestead’s Chevra Kadisha, there is no ending. It still exists, though in altered form. It is now just a cemetery committee.
Some of the reasons behind this narrowing of responsibility are all too familiar. Even before the congregation began to have trouble making minyans, the Chevra Kadisha began having difficulties arranging for shomrim and misaskim. 49 And in late 1948 there was a crisis: no one wanted to chair the Chevra Kadisha. A motion was made that the Chevra Kadisha “be dissolved and the activities be returned to the Congregation,” but as had happened eighteen years prior, “this motion was ruled out of order.” After a lengthy discussion they decided to try again in January, by which point Zoltan Smooke agreed to serve as the next chairman. 50 As with the congregational Board of Directors, the turnover in leadership slowed dramatically after that; the same people did everything for decades, not only because assimilation meant there were fewer people interested in spending their time Jewishly (let alone in such seemingly morbid work) and fewer people who wanted a traditional burial, but also because there were far fewer Jews in Homestead at all.
But the more significant reason behind the Chevra Kadisha‘s reduced scope is that funeral homes began to predominate. Tracing this transition is far beyond what I’m able to research at this time, and the Homestead records are utterly silent about it, but it’s possible the real inflection point came with Pennsylvania’s 1951 Funeral Director Law, which over time was interpreted to mean that mourners must purchase the services of a commercial funeral director. (This is complicated. Read more here if you’re interested. Prepare to be incensed.) By the early 1960s — or certainly not long after that — Homestead ceased to do taharot altogether, and I suspect the same for most area congregations. Today in Pittsburgh there are just two chevra kadishas, one Orthodox and one not, performing traditional taharot. They serve much of Western Pennsylvania and even parts of West Virginia and Ohio. And there is only one Jewish funeral home, though its monopoly was broken when the head of the Orthodox chevra kadisha won a lawsuit to be able to conduct funerals without a funeral director. Legal victories notwithstanding, the days of every shul having to handle burial preparations on its own are over.
The Homestead cemetery continues to actively managed by men who joined the Chevra Kadisha decades ago — Bob Katz, Allen Smooke, and Dick Silk. They arrange burials and unveilings, manage the landscaping and repairs, and, in the “good, old fashion,” sit before the High Holidays to receive visitors and collect tsedaka to support the upkeep of the cemetery. Their records from the two Sundays no longer amount to pages of names as they once did, but they always sit.
Of all of Homestead’s many proud traditions, many committees, and many active members — of all this history I just threw at you — this alone remains.
Because of them, what we have left is far more than most.
- The Pinkas of the Chevra Kadisha
- The Yahrzeit Books
- The War Memorial
- The Desecration of the Cemetery
- Burying the Torahs
- The Ohel
- Chevra Kadisha seudah speeches, 1934-1943
Thanks to my many learned friends who helped me decipher the traditional practices from the strangely-transliterated Yiddish and Hebrew phrases with which I started, especially Jonathan Gruenhut, Meir Schecter, and Aaron Housman, as well as to Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, Founding President of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha for explaining more straightforward practices. A special note of gratitude to Stefanie Strauss Small, who serves on the local Orthodox chevra kadisha, for teaching me about tahara and giving me insight into how seriously misaskim take their sacred duty. And the biggest thank you of all to Bob Katz, Allen Smooke, and Dick Silk, who have maintained the cemetery for decades and patiently answered my all questions about the past. All mistakes are my own; corrections, clarifications, and additional insights would be greatly appreciated!
This cemetery is now managed by Beth HaMedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob. His obituary and his death record name this cemetery, but I can’t find his grave there. If ever his plot had a headstone, it is gone, and though lots of records survive from this synagogue, none fill in this missing detail. When I wandered around the cemetery I found few graves even dating to this period.
Prior to 1905, the only source for burials are the synagogue records themselves, which I list below. (Death records from 1893-1905 are available at the Pennsylvania Department in the Carnegie Library in Oakland, but record keeping during this period was extremely spotty.) Dates for some deaths between 1902-1905 can be guessed from the congregation’s financial records from this period (Box 4, Cash Book Vol. 1). Starting in 1906 the synagogue records are augmented by Pennsylvania death certificates available online at Ancestry.com (free to PA residents through this portal and by subscription to others).
The synagogue records through the mid-1950s contain the following:
- Starting around 1912, when the Chevra Kadisha was formally organized, a running log of deaths through 1933 was kept in their pinkas (Box 13, Folder 2, pp. 31-13). (A copy of most of this list appears in Box 4, Early Records 1914-1939, pp. 183-173.) Around 1933 these earlier logs were copied into a new ledger book indexed by name (Box 13, Folder 4) and through 1955 new names were added here.
- There also appear lists of burials by row in the cemetery. Nearly identical lists of just the children’s rows appear in Box 13, Folder 4, pp. 283-281 and the Cemetery Ledger from 1923-1935 in Box 12, pp. 160-158. These lists include very few dates and often incomplete or missing names. Because in other places, records of child burials were incomplete, this list, even with all its omissions, is the best source for this information. (I suspect one reason for the limited information is that at a much later date, perhaps the teens or twenties, someone surveyed the children’s section to determine who was there, and since less money was spent on markers for children (if at all), it’s possible that even then not all of the markers were legible.)
- Much more careful records were kept for burials in the main section of the cemetery (which were mostly, but not exclusively adults). The earliest such list appears in the pinkas (Box 13, Folder 2, pp. 11-8). I suspect that around 1933 when this book was filled, this list was copied into Box 13, Folder 4, pp. 280-254 alongside the children’s list mentioned earlier and updated through the mid-1950s.
Comparing all of these records against each other yields the most complete list. Nevertheless the child burials will remain incomplete.
(Please note that in the above references in all cases when page ranges appear in reverse order, it is because the book was filled out from back-to-front to accommodate the mix of Yiddish and English.) ↩
Morton Keisler letter, 3/30/1993, MSS #107 donor file ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 36 and Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1963-1978, p. 169 ↩
The Hazelwood synagogue, which was founded in 1908 and never established its own cemetery, first approached Homestead about purchasing graves in 1929, but the deal was not signed until 1935 (Box 13, Folder 2, p. 79; Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 6-10, 12-13). They originally purchased 50 graves, but acquired 5-10 more in late 1964, around the time their congregation (Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 273-6, pp. 280-1). Hazelwood also sent its children to Homestead Hebrew school in the late ’30s and early ’40s (Box 8, Minutes Minutes 1931-1940, p. 409; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1950, p. 137). ↩
Starting in 1902 there are synagogue financial records that include some, but probably far from all, burial- and cemetery-related expenses (see Box 4, Cash Book 1902-1916). Starting in mid-1913 there are Chevra Kadisha records in Yiddish that I cannot read except for the list of burials. The records mostly switch to English in late 1925, but this group’s minutes tend to be spottier than the main congregation’s. (This book is in Box 13, Folder 2. It is hilariously called “Old Book” to differentiate it from… all the other old books?!) The congregation’s own minutes begin in 1920 and include references to major Chevra Kadisha activities as well (Boxes 7 and 8). ↩
These expenses are extracted from Box 4, Cash Book 1902-1916. ↩
An ohel isn’t a requirement — bodies could have been prepared for burial in someone’s home or after 1902 in the shul basement, and funerals could have always been held graveside, but an ohel makes all these steps easier. ↩
Box 7, Meeting Minutes 1920-1931, p. 40 ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, pp. 101, 94, 92, 83 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 5 and Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, p. 172 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 5 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 54, 135, 140, 148; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1950, p. 349 ↩
From the recollections of Allen Smooke, which are supported by the records. The 1948-1959 financial records in Box 13 itemized expenses for funerals, so we can see that by the end of this period only some burials included payments for muslin, presumably indicating when Homestead’s Chevra Kadisha was involved in preparing the body. After 1959 they changed their style of record-keeping, so it is no longer possible to know what each funeral involved. The 1961-1967 check receipt book in Box 11 records the last payment for muslin in early 1963. Though minutes from the Chevra Kadisha meetings exist through 1969, frustratingly, at no time do they discuss how their work was being supplanted by the funeral homes. ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 66-65. Regarding the land they could not fence, “it was decided to prohibit to make a pasture field out of it, about cutting hay left in the hands of chairman + vice chairman.” Huh! ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 124; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1950, p. 335 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 129-132; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1950, 356-381, 411 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 197-205. From what I can tell from the minutes and payments, this work was just a survey and did not involve all the clearing, fencing, grading, &c. of previous rounds of work. ↩
Recollections of Bob Katz and Dick Silk. I had taken for granted that the road had always been there, but I learned from them that my first visit to the cemetery in April 2010 was when it had just been laid! For the century prior the road had been dirt, which created big problems when it rained. ↩
Box 13, Folder 3 p. 51; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, pp. 191, 293 ↩
Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, p. 393; recollection of Dick Silk ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 177 ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 286 (note the date at the end of the poem); Box 13, Folder 3, p. 59 (speech from the 1938 Chevra Kadisha seudah); Box 4, Cash Book 1902-1916, p. 35. I suspect the date of formation can be tied to the growing number of burials for adults and older children, which required more preparation than the always-high number of burials for young children. For Homestead I believe the cut-off was three years of age, but I’m not sure (Yiddsh). ↩
Box 4, Cash Book 1902-1916, pp. 3 & 10 ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 72 ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 101 ↩
For example, there was a case in 1935 where a family couldn’t pay anything to bury their infant child, but the father promised “if at any future date he will have any money he will pay to the cemetery fund 25.00” (Box 13, Folder 3, p2). If this sliding scale makes you uncomfortable, consider that (a) it was done this way in the Old Country, too (see The Jewish Dark Continent, pp. 275-6, question #1745 and footnote 567), (b) there was a Hebrew Free Burial Society which some Homesteaders used, and (c) today funeral homes charge everyone a ridiculous price across the board. ↩
As far as I am aware, there was never a mikvah. And yes, there was a very active sisterhood, but it was not part of the shul hierarchy, though of course most of what they did was in support of the shul. ↩
At least by the late 20s, the earliest period for which I can read the records. For example, on 2/15/1928, “Chairman [S. Margolis] appointed Jos. Kardon chairman of Misaskim; B Seiavitz M D Weis Mor Fogel Louis Schwartz B Markovitz L Mermelstein Mdl Margolis Jos Fried D Jacobson S Rosenthal, aids.” ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 88. “Mr Rosenthal stated that sponges are not permisable according to the Jewish law. Mr B Hepps stated that the sponges can be used, but after they are used once, they are to be destroyed.” It’s interesting to note that at no point do they consider consulting a rabbi on this question! ↩
Box 13, Folder 2, p. 96 ↩
I learned about this timing in a phone conversation with Rabbi Segal in November 2014. I must admit, though, that I have read about possible instances during the funeral itself when mourners, not the misaskim, ask for forgiveness. This source says that the mourners ask forgiveness as they place stones on the grave towards the end of the funeral. This source says the funeral begins with the family members asking for forgiveness. From what I’ve been reading, I don’t get the sense that all traditional funerals are the same, and there’s no way to know which was Homestead’s practice and therefore which prayer for forgiveness actually was omitted. But it still stands that Homestead’s tradition was to have funeral guests wait in the next room during tahara, which is really the main point I wanted to get across here! ↩
The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement by Nathaniel Deutsch, pp. 281-2. See questions #1814-6, as well as footnotes 592 and 593. I’ve also heard that beggars gathered at the gates of cemeteries during funerals shouting the same phrase, but it is highly unlikely there were Jewish beggars hanging out in Homeville, and the rest of the Homestead sources make it clear that the money collected went back to the shul, so it had to have happened the way this book recalls.
Incidentally, The Jewish Dark Continent is one of the most mind-blowing books I’ve ever encountered. It explains thousands of Jewish folk beliefs and practices collected the early 1900s by the ethnographer S. An-sky. Seriously, this book will change everything you thought you understood about the worldview of your forebears. Browse it online here, listen to this podcast with the author, or better yet buy the book to show your appreciation for author Nathaniel Deutsch’s monumental achievement. ↩
The earliest entry, dated 1/18/1903, is from the very first funeral covered in the financial records (Box 4, Cash Book 1902-1916, p. 2). The last known entry is from 5/12/1924 (Box 4, General Ledger 1914-1939, p. 46). The Moss anecdote, from Box 13, Folder 3, p. 26, confirms that despite the lack of evidence after 1924 the custom was still happening well into the 1930s. I believe later entries may record this income as “tzedaka box,” “collection” or “collection at cemetery,” “donations,” or “pushka” (Yiddish for tsedaka box), though even these indicators fade before the Moss incident. ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 165-6. The strikethrough and additions in blue are corrections made by a second person to the first person’s minutes. Clearly not everyone understood what the heck Rabbi Segal was talking about! ↩
The symbolism of eggs I learned from Deutsch, p. 278, question #1768 and footnote 576. Stefanie Small told me that it is a distinguishing mark, and the ideas behind decomposition I learned here. The explantaion for twigs I also got from Deutsch, p. 291, question #1909 and footnote 632. ↩
Deutsch, pp. 269-270, questions #1689-1696 and footnotes 541-543; pp. 294-295, questions 1940-1 and footnotes 648-9 ↩
Bridging Three Worlds: Hungarian-Jewish Americans, 1848-1914, by Robert Perlman ↩
From the Homestead Hebrew oral histories and transcripts, summer 1993. Assuming Averbach is correct in his recollection of which rabbi was involved, the period under consideration is 1925-1927. 1926 had a couple more burials than the previous year, though they were clustered in the first half of the year. Or perhaps the congregation’s concerns were related to the aftermath of Rabbi Widom’s suicide? Unfortunately the Chevra Kadisha records for this period are in Yiddish. Argh!
Updated June 2022: For years I have wondered if this story actual related to the large number of older children who died around 1920. While this predated Rabbi Goldberg, the extent of the public morning for these children was unique. ↩
Says this post. 15 Kislev happens to also be when they organized. Most chevra kadishas today observe the 7th of Adar, the death date of Moses, since on that day God performed the duties of the chevra kadisha when He buried Moses Himself (Talmud Tractate Megillah 13b), but apparently this date is a Polish tradition. Clearly there were different traditions in different places. Deutsch, for example, says in the Pale the date was the 1st of Shevat (pp. 274-5, questions 1725-6, 1739 and footnotes 560, 565). No one seems to be quite sure of the reasons behind the dates other than 7 Adar.
Usually the seudah is preceded by a fast for the chevra kadisha members to ask once again for forgiveness if they neglected to show proper respect to anyone during the previous year. Nothing in the Homestead minutes even alludes to this tradition, but I suspect that at least in the early years they would have kept it. ↩
This was the last one mentioned in the congregation’s minutes, which run through 1978 (Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1963-1976, p. 101). The Chevra Kadisha‘s minutes end in 1969, just before this seudah took place. ↩
11/22/1926: “Some suggested the misaskim to be paid by the Cong. This suggestion received no support, the following volunteered to assist in case of necessity B Seiavitch: Jos Kardon: Ben Moskovitz: I Kramer. D. Jacobson: R. Shermer: I. Samuels: Ben Mermelstein and Louis Mermelstein” (Box 13, Book 2, p. 98). 2/15/1928: “Rosenthal proposed to enforce the law regarding nightwatch in case of a death in the Cong., each member to be obligated to service in Alphabetical rotation” ( Box 13, Book 2, p. 90 ). 12/3/1939: “Max Lazar…spoke about the hardship of getting Misaskim when needed” ( Box 13, Book 3, p. 72). Maybe there were always issues? I dunno because Yiddish!
Eventually, it seems, Harry Seiavitch and one or two other men were always the shomrim, which we know because they were compensated for their time. In the records I reviewed I never saw anyone actually named as having served as one of the misaskim. Their work was compensated only in the case where women were preparing non-members of the congregation, and even then the payment was made straight to the Ladies’ Aid or Sisterhood. ↩
Box 3, Folder 3, pp. 134-136 ↩