New Jewish cemetery planned as Contra Costa population ages

No-vacancy signs are about to go up in Contra Costa County Jewish cemeteries.

"At the current time, we probably have maybe a year and a half" before the Garden of Remembrance in Lafayette's Oakmont Memorial Park and Mortuary is full, said Susan Lefelstein, director of Sinai Memorial Chapel's East Bay site.

Aware of the need for new burial grounds, local synagogues have formed a nonprofit organization — Gan Shalom — to procure a 79-acre expanse that would take many generations to fill.

Lefelstein said the Garden of Remembrance started out with 600 plots in the early 1980s when Congregations Beth Chaim of Danville and B'nai Tikvah and B'nai Shalom of Walnut Creek shared the property with Sinai.

According to Lefelstein, who also is Gan Shalom's treasurer, B'nai Tikvah is the only remaining synagogue in Contra Costa County selling plots at the 39-year-old Oakmont, located at 2099 Reliez Valley Road. A synagogue spokeswoman said the congregation has 12 left.

Sinai administers the rest of the cemetery on behalf of the entire Jewish community east of the Caldecott Tunnel, which may explain why Garden of Remembrance soon will have no more room.

"We sell to the entire community, affiliated or unaffiliated," she said.

Temple Isaiah in Lafayette owns the other Jewish cemetery at Oakmont, the Garden of Tranquillity. The synagogue sells exclusively to its members. Because of that, Rabbi Roberto Graetz estimated another seven to 10 years may go by before the burial ground is full.

"We are the ones with the most space," he said.

The rest of the Jewish community in Contra Costa County has 100 to 200 plots to divvy up between its members in the Garden of Remembrance, said Efie Lubliner, a member of Gan Shalom's board of directors.

"It's a simple fact of life," he said. "The situation is the Oakmont cemetery in Lafayette is running out of space."

Lefelstein said Sinai can sell as many as 80 graves a year or as few as 35. "There is no set pattern."

What is predictable is the aging process. "The community is growing older," she said. "As it gets older, the faster you need graves."

Because it's a mitzvah for a Jewish community to have burial space for its members, concern among Contra Costa County synagogues has been mounting.

"In the last three years there's been a realization that spaces for all of us were filling up," said Rabbi Gordon Freeman of B'nai Shalom. "We needed a new place."

About 15 years ago, Freeman helped procure his synagogue's plots at the approximately 100-acre Oakmont Memorial Park in conjunction with Beth Chaim's founding member and president, Asher Levine.

"Levine spurred this whole thing on," said Freeman. "He negotiated from Oakmont. I dedicated the cemetery," which, at the time, was shared with B'nai Tikvah, Beth Chaim and Sinai.

"Levine was the first person in the Jewish community to realize the need for a Jewish cemetery this side of the tunnel," said Lubliner.

"He put up the funds. He was the first one who made arrangements with a local cemetery [Oakmont] for a whole section for the Jewish community. And from that, some synagogues bought some plots. Asher started the whole thing."

On Dec. 27, 1996, Levine died, and was buried in the cemetery he founded.

"What better memorial than to create the Asher Levine Memorial Fund" to establish a new cemetery, said Lubliner.

So, the following month, January 1997, Gan Shalom acquired the option to purchase 79 acres of mostly undeveloped land in a currently unincorporated area of Contra Costa County, he said.

The address is 2600 Franklin Road in Martinez, near a Hercules golf course off Highway 4.

The county accepted Gan Shalom's one million dollar offer, and in January, the organization made its first $5,000 payment. It will plunk down the same amount every six months to close escrow in two years, said Lubliner.

Meanwhile, work has begun toward obtaining building and zoning permits from the county and the state of California.

Engineers must test soil. The land must be measured, photographs snapped, architects hired, roads planned, said Lubliner. Money is needed to pay the engineering services, so a fund-raising campaign has begun.

Fifteen hundred brochures have gone out to members of participating synagogues, said Lubliner. They have been signed by Rabbis Yaakov Kagan of Chabad of Contra Costa in Walnut Creek, Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim, Raphael Asher of B'nai Tikvah, Judy Shanks of Isaiah, plus Freeman and Graetz.

The supporting rabbis represent a cross-section of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Orthodox.

"It's a wonderful demonstration of how a community can come together and deal with this issue," said Freeman.

The brochures ask for monthly donations in the $12-to-$1,000 range to help Gan Shalom acquire permits to establish the new cemetery. Money may be sent to P.O. Box 167, Lafayette, CA 94549.

Sinai also expects to be involved in the new burial ground.

"Sinai Memorial Chapel will have a close relationship with the new cemetery," said Gene Kaufman, executive director, based in San Francisco.

"Our intention is to have a chapel and a cemetery that meets the needs of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative," said Lefelstein. "Development will continue for many years."

At 1,000 graves per acre, a 79-acre burial ground "will last for generations and generations," she added.

"Our goal is to create a Jewish cemetery here in Contra Costa County for future generations to come so they don't have to do this again."