Chevra Kadisha

Bournemouth’s Chevra Kadisha – Rites of Passage

Amongst the various aims and ambitions of an orthodox Jewish congregation such as we have in Bournemouth, the provision of an appropriate burial, together with the halachic and traditional rituals which accompany it, is one of the foremost and has the highest of priorities. Thus, one of the original aims of the founding fathers of the congregation recognised this need from the inception of the synagogue and throughout the 100 years of its life successive lay leaders have ensured that the rites of burial have been made available to members.

The first land used to bury Jews was the East Cemetery at Boscombe. It was in November 1905, less than six months after the formation of the congregation that the Honorary Officers wrote to the Mayor petitioning for space at Boscombe Cemetery, and the earliest graves date back to 1906. In those days, there was neither a prayer house at the grounds nor was there a synagogue building elsewhere in Bournemouth; services were conducted in rented accommodation, so we must assume that the rites were performed at the graveside.

As with all Council cemeteries, the right to bury was afforded on a leasehold basis, and there were extra charges for digging the grave and registering the plot. In 1912 the Honorary Officers applied to the Council for the right to bury more than one child in a single grave space – there is no record of the Council’s reply.

In order to provide a suitable tahara (the ritual washing and dressing of the body), a group of members needed to come together to perform this duty. We know from the minutes of the congregation that this happened very early; the teams (male and female) were certainly in place by the outbreak of the First World War, and there is a note in the Report of the Congregation for 1913 that they travelled considerable
distances to perform their duties – in one case to provide tahara for a Mr Peres of Leeds who died in an accident in Swanage. He was subsequently despatched to Leeds for burial by train! In the same year Mr A Cotton and Mr M Dale were elected President and Treasurer of the Chevra Kadisha. In 1917 Mr W Galan is mentioned in connection with Chevra Kadisha work, which he continued to do until his retirement some 30 years later.

In 1915 the Council allowed an application from the congregation to build the prayer house at Boscombe, and agreed to waive the charges for the plots that would be rendered unusable as a result. In fact the building was not completed until 1921, at a cost of about £1200, which looking back at prices generally was a very substantial amount of money. Boscombe Ohel, as those who have visited it know, is gaslit, and is probably the last remaining building in Bournemouth so to be, an atmospheric anachronism in one sense but an inconvenience in another as mantles
are becoming a difficult commodity to purchase.

In 1921 the Honorary Officers contemplated the purchase of a piece of land which had been offered for sale at Bournemouth Aerodrome, which is now the playing fields at Ensbury Park,
owned by Bournemouth Aviation Company. Three or four acres were offered at a price of £225 per acre, and the Board approved the purchase on the grounds that, although Ensbury Park is a long way from the town centre, it was on a tram route. Bournemouth Aviation Company unfortunately withdrew the land from sale before the transaction could be completed.

Through the 1920s and 1930s much of the work of the Chevra Kadisha had to be paid for by the bereaved, and the provision of ‘wachers’ to sit with the body of the deceased from the time of death to the time of burial certainly carried a small cost. Throughout this time there was a problem with lack of volunteers, and increasingly the burden of waching and tahara fell on to the newly appointed Shammas, who was known as ‘The Chevra Kadisha Man’ and his wife, Mr and Mrs Mervish.

In 1936 Mr Galan, who had become Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha in 1934, was nominated for the Board of Management but failed to win a seat; it was recommended and passed at the AGM that the Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha should automatically have a seat on the Board, a practice that soon fell into disuse. Mr Galan worked closely with Rev Fogelnest as his deputy, and subsequently with Mr H Newman.

Membership of the Burial Society was available to all members of the congregation, but there was no point in joining until one’s 40th birthday, as there was no charge made before that time. Joining after the age of 40 incurred a Joining Fee of £1/1/- (£1.05) per year over 40, plus a membership fee of 10/- (50p). Nonmembers of the congregation who required burial were
charged a penalty rate of £5/5/- (£5.25) for every year they had lived in Bournemouth but not joined the shul.

Around this time a proposal was made that all members of the Chevra Kadisha should be paid for their services, to encourage people to join.

Those who did not need the money were encouraged to give it to charity.

During the war the shortage of volunteers was exacerbated by the shortage of men generally, and it was suggested that the minyan men, most of whom were paid to attend services, should do tahara work as well, although this idea proved to be impractical as most of them were too infirm for the physical nature of the work.

By 1945, Mr M Cress had become Chairman, with Mr Van Praagh as his deputy. Throughout all this time, the Ladies’ Section was looked after by Bournemouth Hebrew Ladies Guild, and they did not elect a Chairperson until Mrs Freda Saipe in 1970.

The provision of electric lights at the prayer house in Boscombe was mooted in 1949, and an offer was received from a member to pay for them if the cost was reasonable, which it turned out not to be. At about the same time Mr Galan died, and Mr Van Praagh became the Chairman.

In 1952, the Board of Management approached Bournemouth Town Council for permission to consecrate land at the newer cemetery in Kinson, and a small prayer house was erected there. There was some controversy over this; the Council suggested that the prayer house be built jointly by Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation and the recently formed Reform Synagogue. The congregation’s halachic authority being the Beth Din of the Chief Rabbi would not countenance this, or even a subsequent proposal that both synagogues have separate prayer rooms under the same roof. In the end the Kinson prayer house was constructed at a cost of about £600.

Notwithstanding this, there were agreements between the two communities for the utilisation of the land in the immediate area of the prayer houses, with the result that most of the land near the prayer houses was made available for the Reform Synagogue, and further plots were provided for BHC some distance away, which entailed the coffin being wheeled an extensive distance past non-Jewish graves, and at one time past a large cross, which was not ideal.

In 1955, Alec Kesselman became the Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha, a job which he did with enormous kavannah until 1969. He was also Warden of the synagogue at this time and is remembered with a great deal of fondness by all who knew him.

Unfortunately, from time to time there have been anti-Semitic incidents at both cemeteries, and in 1967 one perpetrator was given three years’ probation for daubing swastikas on six gravestones at Boscombe. A more serious incident took place in 1995, when 42 headstones at Kinson were pushed over and desecrated. In that case the culprits were not apprehended.

As the membership of the congregation increased rapidly through the 1960s, there was pressure from those arriving from London to transfer some of the payments already made to Burial Societies, and in 1966 the congregation entered into a reciprocal arrangement with the United Synagogue whereby subscriptions could be transferred. At that time, the average cost of a funeral was estimated to be about £50.

In 1969, Mr Sol Isaacs took over from Alec Kesselman as Chairman. He served with Freda Saipe until 1974, when Mr Sidney Spector took his place. At about this time a proposal was put to the Board that grave spaces should be used to bury two deep, a proposal which Rabbi Silberg considered a possibility under certain conditions, but which was not proceeded with.

Sidney Spector continued as Chairman until 1986, together with Freda Saipe, who at the AGM in 1983 gave particular honour to her stalwart co-workers Golda Sadlick, Betty Leader, Rose Bergson, Nora Grunis, Miriam Davis and Minnie Klegerman.

Leslie Epstein and Charles Simons took over as Joint Chairmen in 1986, and they worked alongside Freda Saipe until she retired in 1992 and was succeeded by the current Chairperson of the Ladies Section, Mrs Megan Cosky.

In 1991, Sam Marks actively pursued his dream to find land in the Bournemouth area which could be used by the congregation as a cemetery. He and Stephen R White spent much time looking at various sites, and finally hit upon some land in Throop owned by Dorset County Council, and used as agricultural land. The land was purchased by the Sam and Hilda Marks Trust without planning permission, and donated to the congregation. Stephen R White and Ivor Weintroub spent much time and intellectual effort on the planning application, which was first rejected by the planning committee of Bournemouth Borough Council, but that decision was successfully appealed and permission granted in 1994 subject to conditions restricting amongst other things the height of memorial stones that may be erected and the development of suitable landscaping to protect the views from the Village of Throop.

This was during my term of office as President, and it seemed to me that, although the money to develop the site, estimated at about £250,000 was not immediately available, it was mportant that we should push ahead. The Trustees were approached to sanction loans, a fundraising effort was inaugurated under Trustee Geoffrey Feld and Treasurer Larry Kaye, and various architects were asked to produce ideas and costings. As a result, the building of a new ohel was commenced in 1995 and Throop Cemetery was dedicated by Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler and Rev. Israel Cohen in June 1996. Marilyn and I were pleased to have provided funding for the building of the ohel. Alterations in the rules and negotiations by Ivor Weintroub with the Charity Commissioners resulted in their acceptance that the development of the cemetery fell within the congregation’s charitable objects meant that much of the money needed could be financed from the advance sale of plots to members. This, since 1996 has also contributed substantially to the cemetery at Throop becoming a significant factor in the financial wellbeing of the Kehilla. Most visitors acknowledge that it is probably the most aesthetically pleasing cemetery in the UK. This is due mainly to the excellent landscaping ideas and horticultural skills of Leon Taylor who planned the layout of trees and shrubs to whom we all owe our grateful thanks.

In 1993, Gerald Lurie took over as Chairman, and he continued until his untimely death in 1999. Gerald was a devoted worker for the Chevra Kadisha for many years, and was much loved and respected by his team. His place was taken by the current Chairman, Roger Rossano.

Although the work of the Chevra Kadisha is fundamentally sombre, Bournemouth has a tradition of honouring the members once a year around the anniversary of the passing of Moshe Rabbenu, normally sometime in March. For many years, a formal dinner was hosted anonymously by generous donors in one of the kosher hotels, then in the Menorah Suite; more recently a seudah has been sponsored by the congregation for Chevra Kadisha members and spouses. There is also a thoughtful tradition that members, or in the case of the ladies, their spouses, are given all the pesichot (openings of the Ark) each year at Kol Nidrei.

Finally, mention must be made of two important components of the process of burial; the amazing administrative work done by the members of the Synagogue Office, and the remarkable service performed by the various Ministers of the congregation who comfort the mourners with their wise words at funerals, stone settings and shiva houses. We have indeed been fortunate that they have through the years been so empathic, helpful and thoughtful.

By Stephen White