Sinais East Bay outpost adds new burial prep room

The East Bay office of Sinai Memorial Chapel has added a burial preparation room, bringing it one step closer to becoming a full-service Jewish mortuary.

The new room, which was licensed by the state funeral board in late February and is already being used, is equipped to accommodate all the traditional Jewish burial preparations — the taharah, or ritual washing and purification of the body; the dressing of the body in tachrichim, or ritual shrouds; and the placing of the body in a casket.

Shmira, the traditional act of guarding a body from the time of death until the time of burial, takes place in a room adjacent to the new room.

In the burial preparation room, "everything is brand-new," said Sue Lefelstein, funeral director at Sinai's office in Lafayette. "Everything is the newest and the best of equipment."

This equipment includes a special board on which the body is laid during taharah, and a supply of earth from Israel, which is placed on top of the body once it has been installed in the casket.

The presence of the new room means that those who lose loved ones in the East Bay no longer must travel across the Bay Bridge to have the body prepared for burial at Sinai's San Francisco branch. Instead, preparations can be made closer to home.

"It's right here," Lefelstein said, "and for many people who have wanted to use Sinai but the distance was just too great, this makes it available to them."

The room will not only be available for use by Sinai's own chevra kadisha — a group of people trained to perform Jewish burial rites — but also by chevrot kadisha affiliated with local synagogues. Currently those burial societies perform their rites in non-Jewish mortuaries, in rooms that are not specially equipped for Jewish burial rites.

Doing it this way is not "halachically correct," Lefelstein pointed out, but until now it has been the only option.

Earlier this month, Sinai in Lafayette held an open house so that East Bay rabbis could acquaint themselves with the burial preparation room that they, or members of chevrot kadisha at their synagogues, are likely to use.

One who attended the open house, Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, said he believes the presence of the new room will be a source of comfort for East Bay mourners.

"Sometimes it's [been] hard for families when they realized their beloved was going to be doing a lot of traveling before burial," he said. "I think it's going to give them a sense of ease to know that it's all going to be taken care of here."

Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco opened its East Bay branch, its first outpost beyond the city, in the spring of 1993. Since then, the East Bay branch has expanded in stages, first adding an office to help people with burial and funeral arrangements, and then a showroom that displays and sells ritually approved caskets.

Unlike Sinai in San Francisco, however, the East Bay branch still does not have its own in-house chapel. Therefore, funeral services will continue to be held in the sanctuaries of East Bay synagogues or in cemetery chapels.