After a 10-year struggle, new Jewish cemetery finally ready to break ground

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Sue Lefelstein has finally gotten her dream cemetery.

After a decade of searching for land, running endless environmental analyses and appeasing neighbors in and out of court, Lefelstein and her colleagues will sink shovels into the ground on Sunday, Dec. 3, ceremonially transforming the Gan Shalom cemetery from a concept into a reality.

And in the nick of time, too.

“All the Jewish sections in cemeteries, including the one in Oakland, are getting very short” of space, said Lefelstein, funeral director at Sinai Memorial Chapel’s Lafayette branch.

She estimates that both the Home of Eternity in Oakland and the Jewish plot at Lafayette’s Oakmont Memorial Park could be full in 18 months.

Enter Gan Shalom near Briones Regional Park, located on rural, unincorporated land through the Caldecott Tunnel and equidistant from Martinez and Orinda. The 82-acre site should handle the burial needs for Contra Costa and Alameda County’s Jews for well over a century starting next year.

Gan Shalom formed in 1996 as a nonprofit enterprise of five East Bay synagogues: Walnut Creek’s B’nai Shalom and B’nai Tikvah, Beth Chaim of Danville, Temple Isaiah of Lafayette and San Leandro’s Beth Sholom. Two years later, a large parcel of land was purchased for roughly $1.2 million. And after that — wrangling.

Frank Winer can’t even remember how many environmental tests the cemetery has been forced to run. Gan Shalom’s president finally estimates “eight to 10,” and figures the cost at about $500,000.

“We did water tests and wildlife reviews — we had to deal with if there were any red-legged frogs or Alameda whipsnakes or any endangered species or plants,” he said with a laugh.

“Our zoological consultant did a review out here and spotted a red-legged frog half a mile south of our property. The county said ‘Here’s the thing you do for red-legged frogs’ and now we have to put up a fence during construction to prevent frogs from Pinole Creek from getting into our property.”

Most costly of all were repetitions of water tests at the behest of neighbors. Those tests showed multiple aquifers in the area — in other words, Gan Shalom’s use of its well shouldn’t deplete its neighbors’ — but neighbors still took the cemetery to court in 2004 in a suit that was later dismissed.

“It feels very good to finally be moving some dirt out there. It’s been a long time coming and there already is a critical shortage of space. We thought this would happen two or three years before, but it didn’t turn out that way,” said Winer.

The first phase of Gan Shalom’s construction, which is slated to be completed by summer of 2007, would open up around 1,100 gravesites on about seven acres. Subsequent development could yield around 1,000 plots for every acre.

“It’s perfect. The view is magnificent and the land is two-thirds flat,” said Lefelstein.

“It’s got hills and trees and the most beautiful location. And it will provide for the Jewish community for a very, very, very long time.”

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.