Leading nonprofit Jewish funeral chapel is changing the approach to end-of-life problems

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

Two decades since its inception, the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel has introduced unprecedented price transparency into the funeral process, trained clergymen, and conducted community programs that help demystify the process surrounding death.

Funerals are known to be expensive and often come with unexpected fees. They come at a time when people are most vulnerable, intimidated, and perhaps unable to make sensible decisions amid their grief.

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

Under these circumstances, New York’s leading not-for-profit Jewish funeral home, the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, came into being 20 years ago.

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

Joined a group of Jewish philanthropists and community leaders – along with the UJA Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund – who raised a $ 2.25 million loan in 2001 to buy the facility and the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a not-for-profit Jewish community, set up funeral directors.

Two decades later, Plaza not only helped lower the cost of Jewish funerals and add unprecedented transparency to the process – Plaza fees are about 35% lower than comparable funeral homes, and Plaza was the first chapel in the area to do so Prices published on their website – but it has become a leader in educating and assisting 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 take away the profit motives of funerals, and to provide education and grief counseling around the end of life conversation,” said Stephanie Garry, Plaza’s executive vice president of community partnerships.

The burial chapel serves all Jewish denominations, from Haredi Orthodox to the most progressive. It helps in the training of clergy, educators and specialists in the Jewish community. It runs programs in synagogues and Jewish community centers on Jewish rituals related to death, including a curriculum for B’nai Mitzvah students to solve the mystery of death.

When Mount Sinai Hospital set up its now nationally renowned palliative care program, it received a significant boost from the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in the form of a sizeable grant.

“Palliative medicine was a relatively new medical specialty that focused on improving the quality of life for people with serious illnesses, their caregivers and an entire clinical team,” recalls Dr. Diane Meier, professor at the Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine.

The movement to provide palliative care in hospitals was so new at the time, and Plaza’s grant “was very helpful and really important in getting support and support from the community,” Meier said.

Over the past 20 years, Plaza has spent more than $ 1 million on education and end-of-life grants, and has sponsored or co-sponsored approximately 20 conferences on loss and grief. It also runs around 50 educational programs annually, including in cities across the country. A 57-member board, consisting of clergy, social service leaders and community leaders, runs the plaza.

“We developed an entire model based on helping people rather than trying to make a profit,” said Alfred Engelberg, Plaza CEO. “We support end-of-life programs. Our funeral directors do not work on a commission basis; they get a salary. More than half of our funerals use a simple pine box. “

Darren Picht
Darren Picht, Executive Vice President of Funeral Services, and Funeral Director Laura Vaslo in front of the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in Manhattan, a not-for-profit funeral home that has helped make Jewish funerals more transparent and affordable. Courtesy of PJCC via JTA

Much of the Community Education Plaza, Engelberg said, reflects the fact that many Jews today are not as familiar with Jewish rituals surrounding death as previous generations, and therefore often need more guidance on how to provide end-of-life options their parents wish.

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

“What Matters focuses on a person’s values, goals and preferences,” said Sally Kaplan, the group’s program director. “She asks what healthcare decisions you would make if you were ever in a position where you couldn’t speak for yourself. One of our goals is to help people fill out the health mandate and appoint a representative who can speak for them. “

Plaza has also provided substantial grants to the Westchester End of Life Coalition for a program in Westchester synagogues entitled “Can We Talk?”

“We go to synagogues asking us to raise awareness of end-of-life issues,” said Heidi Weiss, a coalition volunteer who is a health care worker with Westchester Jewish Community Services in White Plains. “The grant enabled us to produce videos and buy a card game called Go Wish, which helps people discuss end-of-life care. It helps them to formulate their wishes and priorities. “

Training clergy go to Plaza for training and factory tours. Plaza works with rabbinical students from the JTS of the Conservative Movement, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of the Reform Movement, the Yeshiva University of the Orthodox Movement, the Pluralist Academy of Jewish Religion, and the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

“We’re pulling back the curtain,” said Garry. “We show where everything takes place. We never lose the feeling that people are uncomfortable in a funeral chapel.

“But when they leave our room after a tour or an educational engagement, they understand and appreciate death as a life cycle event. They understand and appreciate the Jewish rituals that surround them. And they understand and appreciate the continuity of our shared Jewish existence and adherence. “

One of the issues Plaza works on with clergy and community leaders is how to deal with end-of-life problems for trans-Jews. The Jewish ritual of the Tahara, the washing of the dead, is typically performed by volunteers of the same sex as the deceased. How should a tahara be performed for a trans Jew?

“We need to ensure that everyone has a respectful burial, whoever they are, and that those in marginalized communities know that there is a voice to stand up for them,” she said. “Our communal conversations are on the side of inclusion, and Plaza sees one of his roles in the community as promoting this notion in spaces of the end of life.”

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

“People turn to us when they hear we’re a community,” Garry said. “Since we opened our doors, our business has more than tripled and we are now one of the leading Jewish bands in the New York area. I believe we are the gold standard when it comes to helping our families and being a thought leader and thought leader for what we do to support the community. “

This article was sponsored and produced in collaboration with Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure that every member of the Jewish community receives a dignified and respectful Jewish funeral. This article was created by JTA’s native content team.

By Stewart Ain

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