Leading nonprofit Jewish funeral chapel transforms approach to end-of-life issues

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Stephanie Garry, Executive Vice President of Community Partnerships at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, presents a reading by Broadway’s top actors of “Fun Home,” a Tony Award-winning musical about end-of-life issues, as part of Plaza Community Education Programs, December 2019 (Courtesy of PJCC via JTA)

Two decades after its founding, the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel has brought unprecedented price transparency to the funeral process, educates the clergy, and runs community programs that help demystify the process surrounding death.

Funerals are notoriously expensive and often laden with unexpected costs. They come at a time when people are most vulnerable, intimidated and perhaps unable to make sound decisions in the midst of their grief.

As a result, many bereaved family members make costly mistakes and find themselves at the mercy of funeral homes whose primary motive is profit.

These are the circumstances that 20 years ago gave birth to New York’s premier nonprofit Jewish funeral home, the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel.

At the time, the New York funeral home market was largely controlled by Service Corp. International, or SCI, a Houston-based giant that owned four of five Jewish funeral homes in Manhattan and seven of 18 in Brooklyn. An antitrust complaint filed by the New York attorney general resulted in an out-of-court settlement in 1999, and SCI was forced to sell some of its funeral homes, including the Plaza Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.

This involved a group of Jewish philanthropists and community leaders – along with UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund – who in 2001 offered a loan of $ 2.25 million to purchase the facility and create Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a non-profit Jewish community funeral home.

Two decades later, Plaza has not only helped lower Jewish funeral costs and brought unprecedented transparency to the process – Plaza’s fees are about 35% lower than comparable funeral homes, and Plaza was the first chapel. from the region to publish the prices on their website – but he became a leader in educating and supporting the Jewish community on end-of-life issues.

“Our mission is to ensure that every member of the Jewish community receives a dignified Jewish burial, to remove the profit motive from funerals, and to provide education and bereavement support around the end of life conversation.” said Stephanie Garry, Plaza’s executive vice president of municipal partnerships.

The funeral chapel serves all Jewish faiths, from Haredi Orthodox to the more progressive. He helps train the clergy, educators and professionals of the Jewish community. It runs programs in synagogues and Jewish community centers on Jewish rituals surrounding death, including a program for b’nai mitzvah students designed to unravel the mystery of death.

When Mount Sinai Hospital implemented its now nationally recognized palliative care program, it received a big boost from the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in the form of a large grant.

“Palliative care was a relatively new medical specialty focused on improving the quality of life of people living with serious illness, their caregivers and an entire clinical team,” said Dr. Diane Meier, professor in the department of hospital geriatrics and palliative medicine.

The movement to provide palliative care in hospitals was so new back then, and the Plaza grant “has been very helpful and really important in gaining community support and approval,” Meier said.

Over the past 20 years, Plaza has spent over $ 1 million on end-of-life education and support grants, and has sponsored or co-sponsored over 20 conferences dealing with loss and grief. It also runs around 50 educational programs a year, including in cities across the country. A 57-member board of directors made up of clergy, social service executives and lay community leaders runs the Plaza.

“We have built a whole model based on helping people rather than seeking profit,” said Alfred Engelberg, Chairman of the Board of Plaza. “We support programs around end-of-life issues. Our funeral directors do not work on commission; they are paid a salary. More than half of our funerals use a regular pine box.

Darren Picht
Darren Picht, executive vice president of funeral operations, and funeral director Laura Vaslo outside the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in Manhattan, a non-profit funeral home that has helped bring greater transparency and affordability to Jewish burials . Courtesy of PJCC via JTA

Much of the community education that Plaza does, Engelberg said, reflects the fact that many Jews today are not as familiar as previous generations with Jewish rituals surrounding death and therefore often need help. more tips for providing the end-of-life options their parents want.

One of Plaza’s main initiatives is to help establish and maintain What Matters: Caring Conversations about End of Life, which focuses on advanced care planning to ensure that a person’s wishes for health are known and honored. The program is a collaboration between Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, New Jewish Home (a long-term care facility in Manhattan) and the Center for Pastoral Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.

“What matters focuses on an individual’s values, goals and preferences,” said Sally Kaplan, group program director. “He asks you what health care choices you would like to make for yourself if you ever found yourself in a position where you couldn’t speak for yourself. One of our goals is to help people complete the health care proxy form and appoint an agent who can speak for them. “

Plaza also provided a large grant to the Westchester End of Life Coalition for a program in Westchester synagogues called “Can We Talk?” “

“We go to synagogues asking us to educate them about end-of-life issues,” said Heidi Weiss, coalition volunteer and health care social worker with Westchester Jewish Community Services in White Plains. “The grant allowed us to produce videos and purchase a card game called Go Wish that helps people discuss end-of-life care. It helps them to verbalize their wishes and priorities.

Clergy-in-training travel to Plaza for training and facility tours. Plaza works with rabbinical students from the Conservative Movement’s JTS, the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Orthodox Movement’s Yeshiva University, the Pluralist Academy of Jewish Religion, and the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah .

“We are pulling the curtain,” Garry said. “We show where everything is going. We never lose our sense of how uncomfortable people are in a funeral chapel.

“But when they leave our space after a visit or an educational engagement, they understand and appreciate death as a life cycle event. They understand and appreciate the Jewish rituals that surround it. And they understand and appreciate the continuity of our common Jewish existence and observance. “

One of the questions Plaza is working on with clergy and lay community leaders is how to deal with end-of-life issues regarding trans Jews. The Jewish ritual of tahara, washing the dead, is usually performed by volunteers of the same sex as the deceased. How to perform a tahara for a trans Jew?

“We have to make sure that everyone has a respectful funeral, whoever they are, and that members of marginalized communities know that there is a voice that will stand up for them as well,” she said. “Our common conversations are on the side of inclusion, and Plaza sees one of its roles in the community as advancing this notion in end-of-life spaces.”

Now entering its third decade, Plaza has captured a growing segment of the Jewish funeral industry in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“People contact us when they hear that we are a nonprofit,” Garry said. “Since opening our doors our business has more than tripled and we are now one of the main Jewish chapels in the New York metro area. I believe we are the gold standard in terms of providing service to our families, and as a thought leader and forward-thinking for what we do to support the community.

This article was sponsored and produced in partnership with Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that every member of the Jewish community receives a dignified and respectful Jewish funeral. This article was produced by the JTA Native Content Team.

By Stewart Ain


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