Sinai Memorial Chapel's main office on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Sinai Memorial Chapel's main office on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

An inside look at our Jewish funeral home during Covid

It has been nearly a year since the Covid virus unceremoniously injected itself into almost every dimension of our daily lives. It has meant “Not Business as Usual” at Sinai Memorial Chapel, our community’s nonprofit funeral home and chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) since 1901.

Our service to our community continues to be grounded in chesed shel emet, the truest acts of kindness. K’vod hamet, honoring the deceased, is our guide, first and foremost.

In mid-March 2020, in order to respond to the emerging Covid pandemic, we felt compelled to turn our world upside down. Our operating priority became the health and well-being of our community and staff. We could not allow funerals to create more funerals.

Our chapels and the community’s cemeteries are a fragile human ecosystem. If a single staff member became exposed to the virus, a large portion of our staff might have to self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days, significantly diminishing, if not disabling, our ability to serve the community.

As we contemplated modifying our religious preparation, operations, funerals and burials, we remained mindful of pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule. While we acknowledged adjustments had to be made, we remained committed to our mission, “care for the deceased; comfort the mourners.”

What has this meant in practice?

We limited entry to all Sinai indoor facilities to staff and essential personnel. All funerals became limited to graveside. Attendance at a funeral was limited by county mandates, with masks and physically distancing required. There could be no viewing of the deceased. Religious ritual preparation became an abbreviated taharahning, along with mourner care, were done over the phone, via Zoom, and by email.

We reorganized ourselves into small teams that would be physically segregated from each other with funeral staff working three days at Sinai and remotely the other two days. We combined the San Francisco and Redwood City teams in San Francisco and created split groups in Lafayette. We widened the scope of our technology to better serve families remotely. Our lease on our Redwood City mortuary was coming due and the landlord had a different perspective on the impact of the pandemic on retail real-estate pricing. When the lease expired at the end of last June, we shuttered the facility. We are actively engaged in establishing a new facility on the Peninsula for when we can again meet with families face-to-face.

Fundraising for the Memory Garden was completed, while development advanced slowly. We can now see its completion in the next few months. We made major progress in restoring monuments and irrigation and expanding burial options at Home of Eternity Cemetery in Oakland, adding 200 plots. Staff expanded a congregational garden at Gan Shalom Cemetery in Briones, near Martinez, where preliminary planning is underway for a permanent chapel. We are also in the permitting process to add nearly 1,000 plots at Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma.

We wrote to the 300-plus rabbis of the community (remember, we are the only Jewish funeral service between Los Angeles and Seattle). We acknowledged that they might have congregants for whom our new guidelines are difficult emotionally and religiously. We acknowledged that these changes are difficult emotionally for us, as well, both as Jews and as funeral professionals, as we asked for their active support in gaining community understanding and acceptance, speaking with a consistent voice.

While the unprecedented development of vaccines has injected optimism, it seems like the malakh ha-mavet, the Angel of Death, is still all too present. Please be confident in knowing that Sinai is here for the entire spectrum of our community as we continue to navigate these deep and dark waters together.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Sam Salkin
Sam Salkin

Sam Salkin is the executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco.