Consecration for Contra Costa cemetery

“It’s not something that happens every day,” said Rabbi Raleigh Resnick of Chabad of the Tri Valley, standing under the morning skies of Briones in eastern Contra Costa County.

That “something” was the consecration of the Orthodox portion of the region’s new Jewish cemetery, Gan Shalom.

Blessing the cemetery required a minyan of 10 Orthodox rabbis from around the Bay Area, all under the leadership of Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, who was in the region to conduct a series of workshops. The New York–based Zohn is the founder and director of the Association of Chevros Kadisha (Jewish burial societies) and an acknowledged expert on cemetery consecrations.

He’s done five.

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn (right) leads a minyan of rabbis at Gan Shalom Cemetery. photo/michael fox

“I did one in Alaska once,” Zohn noted as the rabbis gathered around him for the explanation of how the ceremony would work. All had been fasting since waking up that morning. Zohn passed out sheets with various Psalms and a few verses from Isaiah.

“We recite Psalms and walk around [the grounds] seven times,” he explained. “Seven is a figure very often used in Judaism. It’s also kabbalistic. The number seven is a completion. The prayers deal with our recognition of the kindness of God in creating us.”

Joining the rabbis was Sue Lefelstein, associate director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, which co-owns the year-old 82-acre cemetery. “We did have a consecration before we opened,” she said, “but not like this.”

The area consecrated included the Orthodox section, reserved only for the burial of Jews (no non-Jewish spouses allowed).

Zohn first had to determine true east so the minyan could begin its seven circumnavigations at the southeast corner. When asked why, the rabbi laughed and said, “I’m not sure.”

Once on the spot, the rabbis began the start and stop process of walking the wooded borders. Under the watchful eye of red-tail hawks and turkey vultures overhead, the rabbis prayed as a group, reciting Psalms 102, 103 and 104.

“We begin with the prayer for the poor,” said Zohn. “For there are no more impoverished people than the dead.”

Rabbi Menachem Levine of San Jose’s Congregation Am Echad tucked his tzitzit into his pants, saying, “It’s considered an embarrassment to the dead. We can do mitzvahs and they can’t.”

The rabbis ended up expanding the borders to include not only the current Orthodox burial land, but also the land that will eventually encompass a future expansion.

Zohn explained that each of the seven turns around the borders represents a different form of tzedakah, or charity. After the ceremony, the Bay Area rabbis decided to make a charitable contribution to Zohn, who was to disperse it to various organizations.

Chabad’s Resnick was delighted with the experience, even though he had been fasting all day and had to forego his morning coffee.

“I was just the ‘go-fer’ for this,” he said. “I just made the phone calls. But I consider this a great merit.”

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.