Rabbis, cemetery owners, legislators continue closed-door talks

Rabbis, cemetery owners, legislators continue closed-door talks

New Jersey Senate okays rabbi to sit on cemetery board

Time passes slowly in the New Jersey cemetery world.

Three years after his name was first presented to Gov. Jon Corzine for consideration, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor has been appointed to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates the state’s non-religious cemeteries. To be considered a religious cemetery, the property must be owned and operated by a recognized church or synagogue. Most Jewish cemeteries are not considered religious under state law.

Kornsgold’s appointment, which was finally confirmed by the State Senate last week, comes as representatives of the northern New Jersey Jewish community and the cemetery industry have been meeting to see if the two sides can reach agreement on contentious issues without the need for legislative action in Trenton.

The meetings have been convened by Assemblyman Gary Schaer and have been hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The first meeting took place around a year ago. The most recent was held Tuesday.

Schaer declined to discuss the meeting’s deliberations. “There’s been tremendous discussion,” he said, adding that further comment “will be harmful to the process.”

Most of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting – about 10 – agreed with his no-comment policy. The other legislator participating, however, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, voiced some skepticism concerning the prospect of negotiating an agreement.

“I’m less optimistic than some,” she said after the meeting. It is a question, she said, “of how much we could and would do legislatively, and how much is done on an agreement of goals outside legislation.”

In 2008, Weinberg first introduced a bill that would address one of the major concerns of the Jewish community: the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. The bill would bar fees beyond actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another would require cemetery companies to file annual financial reports with the state.

There is a large gap in Trenton between introducing a bill and the first legislative hurdle, a committee hearing.

Weinberg said she has arranged with the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nia Gill, to meet next month with a group of rabbis to hear their concerns. Gill, according to some, has been a stumbling block to any efforts to reform the system.

Weinberg’s involvement in the cemetery issue, and her legislation, came in the wake of a February 2008 meeting convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the then-UJA Federation of Bergen County. The meeting brought local legislators together with representatives of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the New York Board of Rabbis. At that meeting, the rabbinical boards and JCRC issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul of New Jersey’s oversight of the cemetery industry.

Schaer was also a participant in that meeting.

Nearly four years later, the appointment of Kornsgold to the cemetery board may be the first concrete accomplishment of the process begun by the JCRC and continuing in the current meetings held under its auspices.

Kornsgold was asked to serve on the board by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis because of his location, near Trenton. In the years since, however, the cemetery board has relocated. When he attends his first meeting on the board next month, it will be in Newark.

Kornsgold is one of two public representatives on the 10-member cemetery board. Three are representatives of state officials, and five are selected by the cemetery industry itself.

This makeup of the board was criticized in a statement issued by participants in the 2008 meeting, among them Schaer.

“Essentially, the foxes are in charge of the hen house,” wrote Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, in a column for this newspaper earlier this year. Engelmayer now serves as interim editor of The Jewish Standard.

Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center / Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, Engelmayer chaired the February 2008 meeting and led the fight for cemetery reform when he served as NJBR president from 2008-2010.

“The appointment – finally – of Jay Kornsgold to the cemetery board changes almost nothing from a practical standpoint,” Engelmayer said for this article. “But it does mean that the community now has someone to turn to on the board who will listen to its concerns and put those concerns before the board. It also means that if the board chooses to ignore legitimate complaints, there is someone on the board who will help put the spotlight on that.”

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