On June 29, Bala Cynwyd's will cut the ribbon on a three-acre Jewish burial space it calls the only Jewish-exclusive burial space in Lower Merion Township.
"For several years, there's been a growing expression of need among Jewish families in the community for a Jewish burial site that would be more convenient," said West Laurel Hill president and CEO Pete Hoskins, who added that the 1,500-grave expanse will include a specially partitioned area for Orthodox Jewish burials.
Hoskins said the arrangement—a Jewish burial area within a secular cemetary—is unusual but not unprecedented and that West Laurel Hill went to pains to construct the space in accordance with Jewish tradition.
"There were limitations on the kinds and locations of trees, we have a separate entrance, and we've provided for things like ritual washing," said Hoskins. West Laurel also had a rabbi perform a special ceremony to distinguish the Jewish burial area from the rest of the 187-acre lot.
Hoskins said the local Jewish community has embraced the project and been supportive throughout. Rabbi Avraham Shmidman, leader of , served as an advisor.
"Rabbi Shmidman has been especially helpful in his leadership regarding the design and management of the cemetery," said Hoskins, who emphasized that the day-to-day management of such a space is equally important as its design. "We've been following his advice quite closely as we move through this."
Though the cemetery has sold 150 burial plots to this point, what's generated the most press are the spaces that haven't sold. In a June 16 piece, the Jewish Exponent reported that Shmidman's Lower Merion Synagogue reneged on a deal to purchase a special congregational plot in the space and that questions have been raised in the community about whether West Laurel Hill is sufficiently qualified to run a Jewish cemetery.
Hoskins—who stressed that a deal was never officialized and that he and the synagogue are still discussing a smaller plot—said, to his understanding, the arrangement fell apart because of financial reasons, not concerns over a secular cemetery's ability to accommodate Jewish ritual.
"I think it's nearly universal sentiment that the Jewish families in this area see [the cemetery] as a great addition to their community.That's the feeling I've heard about this," said Hoskins.
While a call to Shmidman was not returned, LMS executive director Gwen Horowitz said her synagogue's decision against reserving a plot was economically driven.
Rabbi Yonah Gross of Wynnewood's synagogue said that while he hasn't seen the West Laurel Hill cemetery, it can be doctrinally acceptable for a Jewish cemetery to be housed by a non-denominational one—so long as certain criteria are met.
"It can be constructed in a way as to avoid any problems," said Gross.
The rabbi added that he would not be bothered if one of his congregants chose to be buried in such a space.
"Assuming that it was put together in the appropriate way, that would be fine," said Gross, who added that because Rabbi Shmidman served as an advisor on the project, he assumed just that.
Hoskins, who hasn't sold congregational plots to any other local synagogues, said that fact won't problematize the non-profit's business model.
"We are quite able to have a successful Jewish cemetery without a designated block sale from any synagogue. We already have scores of families who have purchased on their own," said Hoskins. "Whether we get a block sale or not, we'll be able to build out and sustain forever a Jewish cemetery here at West Laurel Hill."