JF&CS Partners with HOD on Indigent Burial Project

JF&CS Partners with HOD on Indigent Burial Project

The Hebrew Order of David and JF&CS have launched a project to identify Jews buried in unmarked graves in Atlanta’s cemeteries and to place markers at each of these sites.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Members of the JF&CS staff and the HOD listen as Rabbi Yossi New opens the ceremony.
Members of the JF&CS staff and the HOD listen as Rabbi Yossi New opens the ceremony.

Jewish Family and Career Services has partnered with four Atlanta lodges of the Hebrew Order of David (HOD), a fraternal organization that raises funds for local charities and supports Jews in times of difficulty, to launch a major project to identify Jewish individuals buried in unmarked graves in Atlanta’s cemeteries and to place markers at each of these sites.

Most cemeteries likely have unmarked graves, including Jewish ones. This can occur for several reasons, such as family or friends not being able to afford a stone, or if the deceased was estranged from family. Every cemetery has a map to identify these so-called indigent burial sites.

JF&CS Community Chaplain Rabbi Judith Beiner runs the Indigent Burial Program in partnership with Dressler’s Funeral Care to help families fulfill the obligation of providing a dignified and halachic (lawful Jewish) burial. Beiner maintains a spreadsheet of the unmarked graves, with names, dates of birth and death and their location. Currently, there are 36 unmarked Jewish plots at Greenwood Cemetery and a few at Arlington Cemetery.

HOD and its North American Governing Lodge work together on the indigent graves project, the cost of the first stones being covered by donations. On Sunday, March 13, a large group from the four HOD lodges and JF&CS gathered to remember two of the deceased and unveil their gravestones at Greenwood Cemetery. Rabbi Beiner co-officiated with Congregation Beth Tefillah Rabbi Yossi New, one of 15 rabbis in Atlanta who are members of HOD.

HOD and JF&CS have a history of cooperating on community-focused projects. Over the years, HOD has purchased three handicap vans for the organization. HOD member Les Kraitzik, who was active in the organization while in South Africa, learned about the indigent gravestone project at a Houston HOD chapter and brought the idea to Rabbi Beiner. He invited another member, David Joss, to help establish Lodge Carmel in Atlanta, which became the first HOD lodge in North America. At the unveiling ceremony, Beiner read a poem, “Every Person Has Name,” expressing the significance of placing a memorial at each unmarked grave.

Standing under the Workmen’s Circle Arch (l to r) David Joss of HOD International, Rabbi Judith Beiner, Rabbi Yossi New and Les Kraitzik.

JF&CS, which maintains an indigent burial fund, works in tandem with Edward Dressler of Dressler’s Jewish Funeral Care to determine whether an individual is eligible for indigent burial. Dressler explained that he is sometimes approached by rabbis or families with requests for financial help, and that he talks to them to determine their financial situation. He may refer a needy family to JF&CS and may assist with the costs as well.

“Most families do their best to cover some of the costs, and we want to help JF&CS manage their limited indigent burial funds,” Dressler said. “Our overall purpose is that every Jewish person gets a proper Jewish burial.”

The donated burial sites at Greenwood Cemetery are in the Workmen’s Circle section, to which JF&CS was given access. Now known as the Worker’s Circle — the Arbeter Ring in Yiddish — the cultural organization, originally socialist, was launched in New York in 1892 by Jewish immigrants to provide aid and death benefits to fellow members. Greenwood Cemetery helped by reducing cemetery burial and tombstone-laying fees.

Kraitzik, representing HOD International, said, “Bringing dignity to those who have passed is one of the most important mitzvot we can perform. HOD is honored to work with JF&CS and our brother, Eddie Dressler, to make this happen here. And we’re not going to stop at Atlanta.”

Traditionally, the gravestone is placed by the bereaved family, and HOD attempts to contact family or friends of the deceased for permission to fulfill that mitzvah. The first two markers were placed in honor of William Peca, who died in 2015, and Leon Asner, who died in 2020. Neither have any known relatives in Atlanta.

“I am deeply comforted with the knowledge that those souls will be remembered and honored into eternity,” said Beiner. JF&CS staff shared memories of Asner, who for years was actively involved with their organization through Holocaust Survivor Services.

In 2017, the organization arranged his bar mitzvah at the age of 85 at the Marcus Hillel Center at Emory and fulfilled his final wishes to have an Orthodox funeral and to not die alone. Following the unveiling, Rabbi New led everyone in reciting the Kaddish and in singing “Oseh Shalom.”

“They say that the spirit of a person who has passed away is elevated when people remember them,” noted Joss. “Today we fulfilled the mitzvah of placing gravestones for Leon Asner and William Peca. I am sure they would have been amazed at the large group of men and women who came to unveil their gravestones and remember them in a very moving ceremony.”

JF&CS CEO Terri Bonoff expressed her thanks to HOD and to all who gathered for the unveiling. “May this important act have ripple effects far and wide,” she said, “bringing peace and blessings to those in harm’s way and to all who have died without recognition.”

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