Sinai Memorial Chapel began life in 1901 as Hebrew Funeral Parlors.
Sinai Memorial Chapel began life in 1901 as Hebrew Funeral Parlors.

Growth spurt for Sinai funeral home as it marks 120 years

The year was 1937 when 28-year-old David Rubenstein, an attorney early in his career, became an unofficial leader for the San Francisco–based Jewish funeral home known today as Sinai Memorial Chapel.

He served as legal counsel for the local chevra kadisha (the volunteer group in charge of Jewish burials), awaiting his entry to the board, which could only happen with the death of a serving board member.  Rubenstein finally joined the board 26 years later, in 1963. Sadly, his length of service would be short, as he died just five years afterward.

Throughout his long association with Sinai, Rubenstein “would bring home stories about people who had passed away [whose loved ones] were helped through Sinai,” recalled his son, Michael Rubenstein. The younger Rubenstein, now 77, was Sinai’s board president from 2016 to 2018, a position he largely aspired to in order to “honor the memory of my father.”

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, included in the Ten Commandments, is a very big part of the mission at Sinai, which has been providing dignified, Jewish burials since its founding in December 1901. The only Jewish nonprofit funeral society in the West, and one of just a handful in the United States, Sinai is one of the oldest of all funeral homes in the country under continuous ownership.

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)

On Jan. 11 — 120 years after its formation — Sinai Memorial Chapel will be celebrating its history and long service to the Bay Area Jewish community with a Zoom event open to the public.

The event, part of Sinai’s hourlong annual board meeting, will feature historical photos and aerial drone video footage for a birds-eye view of the cemeteries under Sinai’s umbrella. Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco will give an opening prayer and Cantor Arik Luck of Congregation Emanu-El will sing, with remarks from Rabbi Sarah Graff of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto; Bruce Feldstein, founding director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services; Paul Cohen of S.F. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and others. (See schedule here.)

According to the Torah, Moses lived to the age of 120, which is one reason Jews offer the blessing “ad me’ah ve’esrim,” may you live to be 120.

In fact, the institution — which operates funeral homes in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Lafayette, and cemeteries in Colma, Briones (near Walnut Creek) and Oakland  — is experiencing something of a growth spurt.

Entrance to the Home of Eternity cemetery in Oakland. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Entrance to the Home of Eternity cemetery in Oakland. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Sinai now manages and operates four cemeteries. It took over Home of Eternity in Oakland, in 2019, and Home of Peace, also in Oakland, on Jan. 2. Home of Peace is a small, Orthodox cemetery with a history dating back 133 years, while Home of Eternity is even older, as it was the East Bay’s first Jewish cemetery when it opened 156 years ago inside Oakland’s historic Mountain View Cemetery.

Moreover, Sinai cut the ribbon on a new Palo Alto office about two months ago replacing the Redwood City outpost that closed during the early days of Covid-19.

Sinai Memorial Chapel's new office at the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.
Sinai Memorial Chapel’s new office at the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, Sinai has found its mourner care program more utilized than ever, according to Sam Salkin, the funeral home’s executive director since 2010. For example, in 2020, as many as 700 mourners said yes to bereavement counseling with someone on Sinai’s team of licensed social workers — a significant increase of previous years, Salkin noted.

“They’re home, and they’re isolated,” Salkin said of the bereaved. “And they probably didn’t exactly get to have the funeral or the mourning process, or sitting of shiva, the way they might have imagined it in their heads, and they need support.”

As of now, indoor chapel services are on hold due to the spread of the omicron variant, and mourners must be fully vaccinated and wear masks in order to attend funerals held graveside.

Joan Laguatan
Joan Laguatan

Joan Laguatan, a board member and chair of Sinai’s annual meeting committee, in preparation for the 120th-anniversary celebration, has spent months poring over Sinai’s archival documents, many of which are housed at the Magnes Collection archive at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Through her research, she learned that Sinai Memorial Chapel emerged in 1901 as Hebrew Funeral Parlors, was later renamed Hebrew Burial Association and, in 1937, took on the name Sinai Memorial Chapel.

At first, Sinai was a benevolent society that had only one goal: to bury Jews who could not afford a funeral. But then an idea emerged that would ensure Sinai’s longevity.

“We don’t have to bury just poor Jews. We can bury Jews who have money and who can pay us, and we can take the profits from the pay for service burials, and use those profits to pay for the people who can’t afford it,” Rubenstein said. “The primary purpose of Sinai is to make sure that we can always give a decent, dignified funeral to those who couldn’t afford it, but also to do the same thing for the people who can afford it.”

In general, the funeral industry follows a for-profit business model, and most Jewish funeral homes subscribe to a specific stream, be it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Sinai prides itself on being all-inclusive as well as nonprofit.

Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, was profiled in a recent issue of American Funeral Director magazine.
Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel.

“We serve the entire spectrum of the community,” Salkin said. “We serve people who are atheists, and we serve people who are Chabadniks. We serve Karaites, where in some communities [they] would not be considered Jewish, and we embrace them as one of us. We’ve served the LGBTQ community long before anybody put those five letters together … We serve transgender Jews.”

Sinai also facilitates cremation services for Jews who request it.

“In other places, that would be considered a shanda [disgrace] or outside the norms,” Salkin said.

Salkin describes Sinai as “cemetery agnostic,” meaning a person can choose to have a Sinai-organized Jewish funeral and be buried wherever they wish. “We do not steer them toward our cemeteries,” he said.

Of all the changes Sinai has undergone over the years, one noticeable shift occurred in 1986, when women were named to the board for the first time. Before that, only men could serve.

Today, the 17 voting board members are nine women and eight men.

Laguatan, in her research, found minutes from early board meetings, with one including a motion to allow board members’ wives into a dinner in 1935. “They rejected it,” Laguatan said. “Now, obviously, it’s so balanced …  And I think they’ve come a long way.”

“If you look at our board members,” Salkin added, “we have geographic diversity. We have religious-stream diversity, we have gender diversity, we have sexual orientation diversity. And we have age diversity. And diversity was not part of the picture two generations ago, or a generation and a half ago.”

How would David Rubenstein view Sinai’s evolution if he were alive today?

“It’s hard to say how he would respond to keeping up with the times, since he’s been gone for more than 50 years,” son Michael said. “But I think he would have been pleased at the growth of Sinai and the breadth of the membership on the board.”

Sinai Memorial Chapel’s 120th anniversary and annual meeting, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Jan. 11. Free, with registration. Sign up and/or offer a wish here.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.