Burned out owner of mobile Jewish funeral service calling it quits

Daniel Mandel said that after five years of trying, he’s let his Vallejo-based, Jewish-oriented funeral business die.

He closed shop Jan. 1, and during an estate sale that’s planned to last most of February, Mandel is selling off mortuary equipment, home and office furniture and other items.

While the economy likely had a role in the failure of Mandel Funeral Services of Northern California, Mandel, 56, said he thinks mostly it was because his concept may have been too far ahead of its time.

“My feeling is a lot of people didn’t understand the idea of a mobile funeral home that came to them,” said Mandel, whose family has been in the Jewish funeral business for generations in Chicago. “They’d see I was in Vallejo and assume I couldn’t help them, even though I was in their local phone book.”

When it opened in August 2006, Mandel Funeral Services was by all accounts the first Jewish funeral home in Vallejo and likely in Solano County.

Jim Kern of the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum said at the time he had no knowledge of a previous Jewish mortuary, and Seymour Marcuse, whose Vallejo memories date back nearly 80 years, said he didn’t think there’s ever been one in the area.

Daniel Mandel opened his funeral business in Vallejo in 1996.

“In the old days, people went to Sinai in San Francisco” for Jewish funeral services, Kern recalled, referring to Sinai Memorial Chapel, which now has satellite offices in Redwood City and Lafayette.

Mandel said that before settling on Vallejo, he did his homework and found no Jewish funeral services offered in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Marin County or parts north. He saw an opportunity, and offered services ranging from barely Jewish to Orthodox and to not Jewish at all.

Besides bringing the service to the customer, Mandel introduced other innovations such as live, streaming video of funerals for those unable to attend. That service started two years ago and it became popular, he said.

But it evidently wasn’t enough.

The recession also impacted his decision to shut down, Mandel said.

“I understand a lot of funeral homes are struggling,” he said. “And the economy certainly took a toll on my hedge, the real estate, which is now worth less than what I paid for it, not to mention the improvements I made.”

Mandel’s building, which takes up nearly an entire city block of downtown Vallejo, is also for sale — at a loss, he said.

“I’ve lost $100,000 per year for five years and I got totally burned out doing everything myself. I realized that I’d put my life savings, not to  mention other people’s money, into creating something, and that I was breaking my back trying to provide a service to people.”

The venture took a toll on Mandel’s health and his marriage, and an incident a year ago, which he called a symptom of a major emotional collapse, helped him reach the 

decision to quit, Mandel said.

On Jan. 8, 2010, Mandel was arrested for driving under the influence on his way to a funeral in Richmond, following what police at the time described as a minor hit-and-run crash that left his hearse on fire on the side of the road. The regional negative publicity didn’t help, Mandel said.

“I lost some clients as a result, but it was a wake-up call for me that it was time to close the business and find another profession.”

Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, agreed that “the recession has hit the funeral industry,” though it has affected his nonprofit organization in “subtle ways,” he said. For example, more people are choosing plain pine caskets (rather than more expensive ones) or cremation, which strictly speaking is forbidden by Jewish law. Also, “there has been inflation in the industry,” he said, although Sinai has not raised its prices accordingly.

Mandel “worked hard to serve his community and it’s unfortunate for him to close his doors,” Salkin said, adding that “Sinai stands ready to serve” the North Bay Jewish community.

Mandel’s wife, children and grandchildren remain in Chicago, where he lived for many years before moving to Vallejo.

“My parents live in Sacramento, though, and now I’m working there as a seniors’ advocate,” Mandel said.

SeniorLink is a county-funded program that tries to be culturally sensitive to seniors of all backgrounds, he added.

Mandel said advocating for seniors was always his favorite part of his old profession.

“I’m passionate about it,” he said, “working with widows and widowers, helping them get their feet back on the ground and headed in the right direction.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.