Organizations more than a century old form a small club. Earlier this year, Hebrew Memorial Chapel joined it.
Until the early-20th century, most Jewish funerals and burials were handled by synagogues and landsmannschaften, societies formed by immigrants from the same European town or shtetl.
But many Jews were not affiliated with a synagogue or social group, and a good number struggled financially. When they died, their friends and neighbors had to beg for help to cover their funeral and burial expenses.
Shlomo Sandweiss was outraged when he heard about an indigent Detroit Jew who had been buried in the city’s “potters’ field” for paupers. On May 1, 1916, he called together a group of 10 men, who resolved there should never be another such shameful act. They formed Chesed Shel Emes, then translated as the Hebrew Free Burial Society.
Chesed shel emes, the term generally used to describe Jewish burial practices, means “true lovingkindness,” because there is no way the beneficiary can feel beholden or repay the service in any way.
Sandweiss became the first president of the society, which had a membership of more than 1,000 at the end of its first year. In its first two years, the society buried 65 indigent Jews.
One hundred years ago, the society opened its first funeral home, at 66 Brewster St. They paid $5,000 to acquire land for a cemetery at 14 Mile and Gratiot in Roseville, accessible by streetcar from Detroit. With 27,000 graves, Hebrew Memorial Park is the largest Jewish cemetery in the Midwest.
In 1923, the organization moved to a brick building on Frederick Street that held a chapel, a hall available for rental, a waiting room, a morgue and a residence for the caretaker. In 1931, they moved westward to their final Detroit home on Joy Road.
It has been in its current location, on Greenfield south of 11 Mile in Oak Park, since 1964. The building, which seats 600 in the main chapel, has been completely renovated over the last five years, said Rabbi Boroch Levin, executive director since 1986.
By state law, a funeral home cannot own a cemetery so Hebrew Memorial Chapel and Hebrew Memorial Park are separate entities, each with its own board of directors. Both are owned by Hebrew Benevolent Society, as Chesed Shel Emes is now known.
The parent organization also has a nonprofit grave monument business, which has provided markers for thousands of graves of indigent Jews.
Over the years, Hebrew Memorial Park absorbed many small Jewish cemeteries whose founding congregations or immigrant societies could no longer maintain them. Its board is now considering whether to take over the Jewish cemetery in Port Huron.
Its nonprofit status sets Hebrew Memorial apart from Detroit’s other two funeral homes, Ira Kaufman Chapel and Dorfman Chapel. The three have a collegial relationship.
“The American funeral industry has been greatly criticized for taking advantage of families at a stressful time, pushing expensive coffins and services they don’t need,” Levin said. “We don’t have that problem in the Detroit Jewish community. All our funeral homes have fine reputations.
“But we are the only one that is nonprofit. Any money we earn above our expenses is put back into the community.” The organization also accepts tax-deductible donations.
“We are a full-service funeral home,” said Otto Dube, managing funeral director. “We can assist families of means, and provide the support they need as well as an eloquent and beautiful service. But we also assist indigent families.”
Some whose families have been helped do try to repay the good deed. One woman left $14,000, her life savings, to Hebrew Memorial in her will. “She remembered how we took care of her mother, who had no money,” Levin said. “She said she wanted to be part of the mitzvah.”
Hebrew Memorial provides Orthodox funeral services for everyone, including tahara (the ritual preparation of the body), burial shrouds and wooden caskets, even though 85 percent of the funerals they handle are for non-Orthodox Jews, Levin said. Many have no congregational affiliation.
“They know we’re willing to provide whatever type of service they want,” Dube said. There have been funerals featuring Dixieland bands and bagpipers, and one for a motorcycle club member whose funeral procession included more than 50 bikers in full regalia.
Myron Armon, who worked in an auto plant, had no family and lived his final years at Jewish Federation Apartments. He told Levin he was afraid no one would come to his funeral, so he asked the rabbi to give $100 and a box lunch to everyone who did. Hebrew Memorial got the word out, and more than 100 people showed up. Armon also left money for a nursing scholarship, which Hebrew Memorial administers, in memory of his mother, who had been a nurse.
Morris Fridman was 94 when he came to the chapel to make his own funeral arrangements. He asked how much it cost to write a Torah scroll. When Levin told him approximately $40,000, he said, “I’ll take two!”
He donated the scrolls in his and his late wife’s names. In September 2000, the Torahs were paraded from his home in Southfield up Greenfield Road to the chapel. Hebrew Memorial lends them for use at shivah houses on Monday and Thursday mornings, when the Torah is read.
Another client with ample means created a special life insurance policy so Hebrew Memorial can give a kosher steak dinner to everyone who attends his funeral.
The chapel has handled funerals for members of the Purple Gang and for the manager of the Four Tops.
Rabbi Bunny Freedman, founder/CEO of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, said Hebrew Memorial provided invaluable help to his family when his father, Avraham Abba, the founder of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda, died unexpectedly in 2002.
“He had a plot in Israel on the Mount of Olives, but the intifada was raging and the Mount of Olives was inaccessible,” Freedman said.
“My father died on Shabbos, when we couldn’t do anything, but by 9 p.m. that night we were able to have a service for 1,000 people. Hebrew Memorial helped us find another plot in Israel and made arrangements for us to travel before we even knew which cemetery we were going to.”
The cemetery has its share of machers (important people), too. In May 1948, the Stoliner Rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, died during a visit to his followers in Detroit. He had burial shrouds in his bag, which his disciples took as a sign he should be buried here. His grave has become a pilgrimage site for Stoliner Chasidim from all over the world.
There’s also a grave for some bone fragments from the Treblinka concentration camp, which had been sent to the late Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, founding director of the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Into The Future
In this century, the Hebrew Benevolent Society has developed some innovative programs.
The chapel was the first in the area to webcast funerals for people unable to attend. In 2012, the cemetery opened Hebrew Memorial Gardens, the nation’s first “green” Jewish cemetery.
In 2013, Hebrew Memorial Chapel started the Adopt-a-Kaddish project, enlisting volunteers to say the annual memorial prayers for children who perished in the Holocaust. About 400 children have been adopted by individuals and congregations. Jewish prisoners all over the country participate.
Now Hebrew Memorial is trying to save lives by distributing free car magnets with the slogan, “Don’t text and drive … we’d rather wait.” Periodic programs allow teenagers to experience how texting affects their driving performance.
Hebrew Memorial handles about 300 funerals a year. They work with all area Jewish cemeteries and with clergy of all denominations.
“Making sure our loved ones receive a proper burial is among the most sacred of Jewish obligations,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
“The staff of the Hebrew Memorial Chapel provide the highest quality of compassionate service. They bring each of us closer to God and support our community in fulfilling the mitzvot of honoring the deceased and comforting the mourners.”
Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park said, “The Metropolitan Detroit Jewish community is truly blessed to have the Hebrew Benevolent Society as an integral part of our community. One is never able to tell the difference between funerals of those who can afford to pay and those cannot. I say yasher kochachem (may they gain in strength) to them in their sacred work.”
Manis Friedman Lecture
Chesed Shel Emes, the Hebrew Benevolent Society will celebrate its 100th anniversary at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, with a lecture by eminent author and rabbi Manis Friedman at Hebrew Memorial Chapel, 26640 Greenfield in Oak Park.
Friedman is a leader of the Chabad community in Minnesota. He was the founder of Bais Chana Women International, a yeshivah for women, at which he continues to serve as dean.
His book, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? (Harper San Francisco), was praised by reviewers. He hosts a cable TV series, Torah Forum with Manis, and has been interviewed by numerous publications and TV shows.
A film about his philosophy, The Lost Key to Intimacy, was voted best documentary at the 2015 Houston International Film Festival.
There is no charge, but because of limited seating, Hebrew Memorial Chapel suggests making a reservation at (248) 543-1622 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The lecture will be webcast for those who cannot attend.