Today is about forever: 1st green Jewish cemetery opens

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As Rabbi Judah Dardik welcomed people to the consecration of the country’s first green Jewish cemetery, an unusual feeling came over him.

It took him a while to find the right words to begin.

“It’s an awkward feeling to have a celebration at a cemetery,” said Dardik, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. “But this is one of the few times, if not the only time, that we’re not here to bury a loved one or friend. We’re here to do something that is remarkably different.”

On March 26, approximately 40 people consecrated Gan Yarok, the new Jewish section of Forever Fernwood in Mill Valley, by walking around the burial ground seven times while reciting a collection of psalms.

“Today is about forever,” Dardik said. “We are making a natural spot the holiest place that a resting body can have.”

A public, nonhalachic dedication is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

Participating in the Gan Yarok consecration are Dan Fendel and his 7-month-old grandson Rami

Hebrew for “green garden,” Gan Yarok has space allotted for 500 graves, according to cemetery sales manager Raymond Soudah. It includes Orthodox, Conservative and community areas, each with its own regulations and separating woodchip paths.

One section is already open, with room for 100 plots spread across the three areas — surrounded by trees, wildflowers and the voices of children playing at a nearby school.

“This moment is incredibly and deeply satisfying,” said Charlene Stern, a founding member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and the child of Holocaust survivors. “We said Kaddish all through our trip to Poland, having no idea where our relatives are buried. To have a place is beyond words.”

The cemetery’s “green” designation means no concrete liners or embalming fluid are used, according to Rabbi Stuart Kelman, president of Kavod v’Nichum, a consortium of burial societies, Jewish funeral homes and cemeteries. Bodies may be buried either in plain wooden boxes, wicker baskets or biodegradable shrouds.

Natural rocks with name plaques, wildflowers, shrubs and trees will serve as markers for the graves instead of granite, concrete or bronze headstones. Plants and flowers native to California will be planted in Gan Yarok (without the use of pesticides or other chemicals), joining the California oak trees already dotting the property.

In addition to being ADA-accessible, Fernwood also has one of the only chapels in the world where kohanim, Jews who enjoy an honored status in Judaism, with certain designated rights and responsibilities, are able to participate in the service, Kelman said.

Participants in the Gan Yarok consecration read psalms during the ceremony. photos/amanda pazornik

Kohanim do not enter gravesites or touch dead bodies in order to maintain a spiritual degree of purity. But the Fernwood chapel features a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on Gan Yarok’s lush greenery, flowers and fountains, enabling kohanim to officiate using a sound system wired to the outside. 

“To do a completely halachic funeral and burial in this lovely setting and to know that everyone buried in this garden will share the same values is wonderful,” Kelman said.

In December 2008, Soudah met with Kelman (who at the time was spearheading the creation of the first Jewish green cemetery) at a Berkeley café to discuss adding a Jewish section.

Recognizing the importance of giving the Jewish community “something they’ve never seen before,” Soudah said, he joined with Kelman and Fernwood staff (including owner Tyler Cassity) to form a partnership. 

Kelman in turn contacted David Stein, former executive director of Netivot Shalom, to chair the Gan Yarok Burial Association, a cross-denominational group of Bay Area rabbis and synagogue leaders; group leaders visited the cemetery to view potential locations and plan the Jewish section’s design. 

The burial association includes Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael; Orthodox congregations Beth Jacob in Oakland and Beth Israel in Berkeley; Conservative Netivot Shalom; and Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Piedmont where Rabbi David Cooper is spiritual leader.

Cooper spoke to Dardik about the idea of a consecration so Gan Yarok could officially open for business. Already one person has been buried in the Jewish section.

“It was very redeeming to be a part of today’s consecration,” said Cooper, who plans to be buried at Gan Yarok. “So much of American culture is based on running away from the aging and dying processes. I feel enriched by dealing with the reality of death and dying.”

Dan Fendel, who is involved in Netivot’s chevra kadisha (burial society), brought his 7-month-old grandson Rami to the consecration, a “special occasion,” he said.

“This defines the essence of perpetuity, which is the most important thing for me,” said the Piedmont resident. “Gan Yarok is a wonderful innovation and a return to very ancient traditions.” 

Gan Yarok is located at Forever Fernwood, 301 Tennessee Valley Road, Mill Valley. Information: (415) 383-7100 or [email protected]