New East Bay cemetery will serve a century of Jews

After 20 years of planning and plotting, the East Bay’s newest Jewish cemetery is open for business. Organizers say it should serve the needs of the local Jewish community for the next 100 years.

The 80-acre Gan Shalom Cemetery (“Garden of Peace”), in an unincorporated area of Contra Costa County northwest of Orinda, officially debuted during a dedication ceremony in April.

According to Associate Executive Director Susan Lefelstein, the cemetery opened its gates just in time. “All the Jewish cemeteries in the East Bay are getting close to running out of space,” she says. “We recognized it far enough in advance.”

From inception, Gan Shalom was intended to serve the entire Jewish community, rich and poor, from Orthodox to secular. Its official policies were designed in consultation with East Bay rabbis from across the denominational spectrum.

“It meets needs of affiliated Jews, unaffiliated, intermarrieds,” adds Lefelstein. “There’s a section that meets the needs of the Orthodox that is separate and apart from the others. If someone is indigent, we will help. Any Jewish person will have a traditional Jewish burial.”

Gan Shalom Cem-etery is actually a partnership between Gan Shalom Inc. — a corporation composed of a group of area synagogues — and Sinai Memorial Chapel. Together they form the nonprofit organization Beit Olam of Contra Costa.

This means Gan Shalom is a community-owned non-profit project, according to Gan Shalom president Frank Winer.

Winer has been working to build the cemetery since 1996. “Each congregation was doing their own thing, making deals with cemeteries,” he recalls. “Everyone was concerned they were running out of space. So we said we need a cemetery that’s going to have space, so we don’t have to run around finding 10 acres every few years.”

The Briones property was bought in 2000. Then a Byzantine permit process commenced. Making sure the project would not harm the red-legged frogs and Alameda whip snakes was hard enough. But the red-faced humans nearby proved even more daunting.

“The neighbors were not happy at all,” Winer says. “They said there’s not enough water, and when you water the turf you will suck the wells dry. We did a number of hydrological studies that indicated that showed it’s not one big aquifer but a bunch of fractured ones. Whatever we did was not likely to affect the others.”

Ultimately, the county signed on, and Gan Shalom became a reality.

Lefelstein says the cemetery meets stringent halachic requirements for those who demand them, and will accept any Jewish person from any funeral home. Still, there are rules: Though Gan Shalom will bury intermarried couples, only rabbis or Jewish lay leaders may conduct services. Only Jewish religious symbols are allowed on gravestones.

To provide 100 years of space, Gan Shalom will develop in phases, with this first phase being seven acres in size. Lefelstein says that should get them through 2028. “Future generations will develop the rest of it,” she says.

As a public service, Gan Shalom will run a series of free Sunday morning workshops at the cemetery, beginning Sept. 21. The topic: the Jewish way of death and mourning.

Though open for business and based at a beautiful woodland site, Gan Shalom is not fully built. Currently, the offices and chapel are housed in temporary modular structures. So there’s more construction to do.

And that means more fundraising.

As to when and how that effort begins, Levelstein jokes, “Got your checkbook out?”

For more information on Gan Shalom, call (925) 962-3636 or e-mail [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.