Beth Israel-Judea sells cemetery to Emanu-El, Sherith Israel

Citing an inability to properly maintain Salem Cemetery for the longest of long-term commitments, San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea has sold its century-old graveyard to Congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel.

As of July 1, Salem became part of a cemetery consortium jointly run by Emanu-El and Sherith Israel, which merged their Hills of Eternity and Home of Peace cemeteries in 1993. All three cemeteries are located in Colma.

“Beth Israel-Judea is a small congregation. And not a wealthy one. And upkeep on the cemetery became more and more beyond the capabilities and resources of the synagogue. And, for the betterment of the community, after a-hundred-and-some years of managing it, we felt turning it over would be the best thing for the community,” said David Stein, Beth Israel-Judea’s executive director.

“As a moral and Jewish value, [the cemetery] had to be maintained. We can’t do it as well as we need to.”

Although Stein would not reveal the exact dollar amount of the sale, Gary Cohn, the director of Congregation Emanu-El, confirmed it was “in the six figures.”

Salem Cemetery was founded in 1871 on San Francisco land near the Cliff House in the far western reaches of the city. Bodies were exhumed between 1903 and 1907 when most major cemeteries were relocated to Colma.

The cemetery encompases 12 acres, houses between 3,500 and 4,000 plots, and has room for 3,000 more.

The consortium approached Beth Israel-Judea about purchasing Salem in 1996, 1997 and 2000, Cohn said. He opened a dialogue once more a few months ago, after he heard Beth Israel-Judea was talking with Sinai Memorial Chapel about selling.

After Salem’s well went dry about 15 years ago, the cemetery was forced to greatly cut back on watering. According to Cohn, Beth Israel-Judea did not have the resources to re-dig the well, but the consortium plans to run water from Emanu-El’s well through a pipe under Serramonte Boulevard and into Salem.

The consortium also agreed to keep Salem’s name, give priority to Beth Israel-Judea members and keep the cemetery’s two long-term employees for at least three-and-a-half more years. Cohn believes the three cemeteries should run a profit, and hopes to add more employees.

Stein admitted not everyone is pleased with the sale. “The members are sad, because we have members … who are in their 80s or 90s who remember [the cemetery] as part of their synagogue.

“But they also know the realities. They plan to be buried there, and they want to make sure it looks as good as they want it to look.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.