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Funeral home opens chapel for kohanim

For Jewish men of priestly (kohanic) descent who observe the biblical prohibition against coming into contact with a dead body, the simple act of attending a funeral gets complicated. They don’t go — or if they go, they stand outside the building or on the road by the cemetery, no matter the weather.

In Clifton, things recently got easier for them: The Jewish Memorial Chapel built a separate kohanim chapel, next to the main building, with heating and air-conditioning and equipped with two-way radio and video, enabling kohanim attending a funeral to both see and hear the service taking place inside the main chapel.

The "state-of-the-art" facility is believed to be the first of its kind in this area, said Bruce Adler, vice president of Jewish Memorial, making the funeral home "more convenient for all to be able to participate at their time of need."

Having the new facility also means that an officiating rabbi who is a kohen can deliver the eulogy from inside the kohanim chapel and those inside the main chapel will be able to see and hear him on two large-screen monitors. At Jewish Memorial’s former location in Passaic, from which it moved about five years ago, said Adler, such a rabbi would have had to deliver the eulogy from a small telephone-booth-like structure outside the building. "It wasn’t very interactive, wasn’t very warm and personal."

The kohanim chapel, which can accommodate about 15 people, was built in an effort to better serve the needs of the community, which has a growing Orthodox population, he said. Henry Poller of Clifton chaired the kohanim chapel committee.

Jewish Memorial, which serves Clifton, Passaic, and the surrounding area, is a not-for-profit business, said Adler, and the money spent on the new chapel is an example of its efforts to give back to the community. Its mezuzah was dedicated by Yeshivat Beit Hillel, the local day school, which is "a large recipient" of its funds.

Rabbi Menachem Zupnik of Cong. Bais Torah Tefilah in Passaic spoke at the dedication this summer. A kohen himself, Zupnik said in an interview that observing the law against contact with a dead body has even wider repercussions, such as keeping kohanim from going to museums that might display or hold mummies or bones. Even air travel can be problematic, as planes sometimes transport corpses from the place of death to the place of burial.

Jewish Memorial’s decision to build the separate area, which is not something Jewish law requires it to do, is "a tremendous gesture on their part," said Zupnik, noting that such facilities may not even exist in Jerusalem. It’s a tribute to the late "beloved" Rabbi Leon Katz of Cong. Adas Israel in Passaic, a kohen who used to eulogize from that telephone-booth-like structure, as has Zupnik. "It’s a tribute to the way he educated them."

The Conservative movement has no specific position on this issue, said Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lanes, but he knows of Conservative Jews who observe the prohibition. Some of his kohanic rabbinic colleagues took jobs in education rather than the pulpit so that presiding at funerals would not be part of their jobs, while some others limit themselves to officiating at funerals only for members of their community.

Finkelstein said "it’s a wonderful thing" that the Clifton chapel is providing a comfortable separate space for kohanim. He said it’s the only one he knows of in north Jersey or New York and that it would be "a tough push" to interest privately-owned funeral businesses to follow suit, because they’d need to be convinced such a facility is needed and would pay for itself in the long run.

The Reform movement does not incorporate the traditional tribal divisions of kohen, levi, and Israel into its practice, so the problem of kohanim and funerals "is not even on our radar screen," said Rabbi Randi Musnitsky, regional director of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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