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Together in rest

A Jewish cemetery’s expansion in Wayland reflects more acceptance of interfaith families and their desire to share a traditional burial

Dr. Ben Pilch of Acton reads the program before last Sunday’s dedication and consecration service for the new Beit Olam East cemetery in Wayland. Dr. Ben Pilch of Acton reads the program before last Sunday’s dedication and consecration service for the new Beit Olam East cemetery in Wayland. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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WAYLAND — An estimated one-third of American Jews are married to non-Jews today, yet there are only a small number of Jewish cemeteries willing to allow interfaith families to be buried together. Many families have had to face the prospect of being separated for eternity — or more commonly, forgo a traditional Jewish burial, and choose instead a municipal or private cemetery for their loved ones.

But last Sunday a solemn ceremony at a cemetery in Wayland increased the burial options for interfaith Jewish families from area communities.

The pressing need for more burial spots prompted the first local Jewish cemetery built specifically to accommodate interfaith families to expand from 4 to 14 acres, with the new section on Concord Road named Beit Olam East.

“It is very exciting,’’ said Rabbi Joel Sissenwine, with Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, who has seen membership at his Reform synagogue swell from 300 to about 900 families in the past two decades. “This is meant to address the increase in Jews in the Metrowest area and the needs they have. People are so pleased there will be another place they can bury their loves ones and visit them in the area.’’

During last Sunday’s ceremony, a group of rabbis and cantors walked the perimeter of Beit Olam East, stopping to pray and read passages from the Torah seven times, in order to consecrate the cemetery and its 7,200 burial plots.

Two-thirds of the plots in the new burial grounds are available to Jews who wish to be buried with non-Jewish members of their families; the balance is contained in a separate, Jews-only section.

The service also included a talk by the state’s treasurer-elect, Steve Grossman, who addressed an audience of nearly 200 people. Many of them are members of three of the region’s largest synagogues — Temple Beth Elohim, Temple Emunah of Lexington, and Temple Beth Am of Framingham, which have special designated sections set aside for their congregations.

In his keynote speech, Grossman, who lives in Newton, recalled the state’s first Jewish cemetery, built in East Boston in 1844, where his ancestors are buried.

The opening of Beit Olam East reflects the growth and migration of the region’s Jews from the urban enclaves of Boston, Winthrop, Revere, and Chelsea to Brookline, Newton, and other suburban communities, Grossman said, and he described the decision to reflect the evolution and diversity of modern Jewish life in burial grounds as a visionary strategy.

“Being open, accessible, pluralistic, and welcoming is how you refresh a religious tradition,’’ he said. “We often quote a famous phrase, which is, ‘Remember the past, live the present, and trust the future,’ and these are the things that keep the traditions strong.’’

The bucolic park-style grounds with three prayer gardens is a short drive from the original Beit Olam, Hebrew for “Eternal House,’’ which opened in 1999 with 2,000 burial spots.

Installed on Old Sudbury Road behind Wayland’s town-owned North Cemetery, Beit Olam was expected to meet demand for 30 years, according to Stan Kaplan, executive director of the Newton-based Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts.

But it took only seven years to sell nearly all of the plots, he said.

Kaplan said he and several other members of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland who had purchased plots in the original cemetery wound up letting them go to local families with more pressing needs.

The Jewish Cemetery Association stopped selling plots at Beit Elam more than three years ago, and started looking for a suitable location for expansion.

Its search ended at the parcel of farmland off Route 126, about a mile north of Wayland Center. The association bought the land for $3.5 million.

Kaplan said the enthusiasm with which the community welcomed the cemetery expansion reflects the reality that intermarriage among local Jews is booming.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey, last conducted in 2000-2001, approximately 47 percent of Jewish newlyweds marry non-Jews, a 4 percent increase from the previous decade.

Massachusetts has 209 Jewish cemeteries, but just a half dozen of them — in Wayland, Randolph, Everett, and Sharon — officially accommodate interfaith families.

“We feel it’s wrong these days to exclude people who want to be affiliated with Judaism,’’ said Kaplan. “I think that’s why people are so excited about Beit Olam East.’’

More than 1,500 plots were already sold before last Sunday’s dedication, he said.

“People see it as coming home. We’ve gone from being an urban community to a suburban community, and now new pioneers are putting down permanent roots here,’’ said Kaplan.

Interfaith burial among Jews — as in many religious faiths — remains controversial. The religion’s tradition dictates that Jews be buried only with other Jews on property that has been specially blessed to protect the immortality of the soul.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston also encourages its followers to be buried in one of the region’s more than 70 consecrated Catholic cemeteries, but allows the burials of non-Catholic family members there as well, spokesman Terence Donilon said last week.

Most Jewish religious leaders, even liberal ones, are unwilling to disturb the dynamics of an existing cemetery. But the Beit Olam cemeteries were established with an interfaith component from the start, and include a physical separation between the various sections.

In just about all other ways, Kaplan said, the Beit Olam cemeteries are traditionally Jewish. Typically, bodies are not embalmed and are interred in an unadorned wooden casket within a day or two after death. In most cases, the headstone is unveiled about a year later.

At Sharon Memorial Park, another Jewish cemetery that accepts non-Jews, president Fred Lappin said that the people buying plots there are still fairly traditional, with fewer than 20 percent seeking an interfaith burial. However, as New England’s largest Jewish cemetery, Sharon Memorial has accommodated interfaith families since its founding in 1948 by local Jewish community leaders, he said.

Lappin also said he expects Sharon to see an increase in interfaith burials as the years pass, and has plenty of room — fewer than half of the 150 acres designated for the cemetery have been used.

“Our job is to serve the Jewish community as it changes over time, and make sure we are in touch with its needs,’’ he said.

All burials at Beit Olam East, or any other Jewish cemetery, are overseen by Jewish clergy. A non-Jew might select a headstone without religious references or symbols such as the Star of David or a menorah, Kaplan said, but crosses or symbols of other faiths are not allowed.

Paula Brody, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Outreach Training Institute in Newton, said the issues of loss and bereavement — and coaching Jewish clergy on how to better help interfaith families cope — are taking on new significance.

More than 75 Jewish educators and clergy members attended a recent Union for Reform Judaism workshop on the topic.

A death is an especially difficult time for interfaith families, Brody said.

“More and more people who are Jewish may have an extended family or family member who is not Jewish,’’ she said.

“It’s very important to understand the rituals and processes of the traditions involved, and what can bring people comfort.’’

Matters of Faith is a series of occasional articles on religious life in area communities. Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.