Gan Yarok cemetery in Mill Valley — billed as the nation’s first green Jewish cemetery when it opened in 2010 — is now even greener, having increased in size after a multi-denominational consecration ceremony on Aug. 9.
The new section opened under the religious guidance of rabbis from three different denominations: Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom (Conservative) in Berkeley; Gershon Albert of Beth Jacob Congregation (Orthodox) in Oakland; and David Cooper, rabbi emeritus of Kehilla Community Synagogue (Renewal) in Piedmont.
Approximately 40 community members also attended the morning ceremony.
Gan Yarok uses no concrete liners or embalming fluid, and bodies are buried in plain wooden boxes, wicker baskets or biodegradable shrouds, allowing decomposition and a return to nature.
Gan Yarok (Hebrew for “green garden”) is a part of the Fernwood Cemetery and Funeral Home, which bills itself as “one of the country’s first environmentally conscious cemeteries.” Up until now, Gan Yarok’s space was big enough for 500 graves; the new section will add between 100 to 200 spaces. Both sections are divided into three subsections: Orthodox, Conservative and Community.
Denominational diversity is one the things Albert likes best about Gan Yarok and how it was planned.
“What was particularly meaningful was the broad spectrum of the Jewish community coming together in a way that respected each components’ traditions and halachic obligations,” he said. “It’s one the beautiful things about the Bay Area. We have very different views on Jewish life and ritual, but we can come together to support each other in these really important infrastructures.”
He also appreciates the fact that the cemetery meets Orthodox standards for Jewish burials.
Cooper and Kelman were a part of a committee of East Bay rabbis and lay leaders who created the guidelines for the Gan Yarok cemetery and consecrated the first section. The second section was built due to a growing demand.
According to Kelman, the existing Conservative section is already full and the other two sections are nearly at capacity.
The rabbis said they were surprised that a second section was needed within eight years; planners originally thought it would take 12 to 15 years.
Kelman is the dean of the Gamliel Institute, a center for study, training and advocacy concerning Jewish end-of-life practices, and one of the leaders of the chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) movement in North America. Though he helped create Gan Yarok and participated in its opening ceremony in 2010, he still felt the impact of the Aug. 9 consecration.
“It was really a very moving experience,” he said. “To be able to say that one is participating in the creation of sacred ground that will last for generations, that is a very powerful experience for anybody.”
Consecration is mandatory, according to Kelman, but the way it is done can vary. Those consecrating must recite psalms and walk around the grounds seven times. This time, the community members and rabbis gave tzedakah at the end of each circuit.
Each circuit and tzedakah had a different theme. For example, the sixth trip around was dedicated to the release of improperly imprisoned people, a social justice tenet in Judaism.
Cooper committed himself to the campaign to end the money bail system, “because so many people in prison can’t afford to pay bail but haven’t even committed a crime,” he said.
Albert said there is a lot of meaning behind the seven circuits, from the way the bride walks around the groom seven times at a Jewish wedding to the way the pallbearers stop seven times when they are carrying the casket at a Jewish funeral.
All of that is “compelling because God created the world in seven different stages,” Albert said, “and we help escort people from this life to the next in seven stops, mirroring the seven steps of creation.”
Cooper said the consecration was especially meaningful because it came just a few weeks before the High Holidays. “One aspect of Yom Kippur is to face up to the reality of your mortality,” he said. “When we try to deny our future death in life, we comfort ourselves with denial. There is a connection for me between accepting the need to buy a plot and the stuff we go through in Yom Kippur.”
Cooper has purchased his final resting place in the Orthodox section, a plot he has visited from time to time. In fact, he encourages others to picnic at their future gravesite.
The new section has plots which “will be positioned around a wooded, forested area,” Cooper said. Graves will be placed in designated spots between trees, which means people can sit under a tree while visiting their loved one.
Whether a third section is in the near future, Kelman could not predict.
“There’s a rabbinic saying that ‘I am not a prophet and I am not the son of a prophet,’” he said. “When I started out as a rabbi, I never thought I would be involved in cemeteries. The truth is I hope it expands so people can choose and afford ground burial, as opposed to cremation.”