There are workers on the paths running through the rolling hills of Home of Eternity, the East Bay’s first Jewish cemetery. Curbs are being refashioned and roads repaved now that Temple Sinai has transferred ownership of the historic Oakland cemetery to Sinai Memorial Chapel.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin said the synagogue felt a deep responsibility for the burial site, but that it made sense to hand care and guardianship over to Sinai Memorial Chapel, Northern California’s only Jewish funeral home, which has specialized in cemetery maintenance for over 100 years.
“Knowing an organization that did this, and did this well, was a real gift and a blessing for us,” the rabbi said.
Home of Eternity, sandwiched between the Catholic St. Mary’s Cemetery and Mountain View Cemetery, was founded in 1865, according to Temple Sinai archivist Fred Isaac. Sam Salkin, executive director of S.F.-based Sinai Memorial Chapel, said a group of local Jews moved to create their own cemetery by acquiring 2 acres of land from Mountain View.
Ten years later, that same group — Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Germany and Poland — went on to establish Temple Sinai, and the synagogue has owned and administered the cemetery ever since. It is open for burial to any Jew. “They shared the same founders, so it’s been a big part of our history,” Mates-Muchin said.
Although Temple Sinai has continuously run the cemetery — including selling plots, arranging funerals, keeping up the grounds and buildings and other administrative work — for the past three years Sinai Memorial Chapel has been supervising the day-to-day management. “Temple Sinai faced a challenge when its cemetery administrator needed to immediately attend to some family matters, which prevented her from continuing in her role,” Salkin said.
One Sinai got in touch with the other for assistance. At first it was just for operational tasks. But as of Oct. 10, Sinai Memorial Chapel is the full owner and operator of the Oakland site. “Those conversations and subsequent conversations paved the way for getting where we are today,” Salkin said.
Temple Sinai is also transferring an existing $1.5 million fund and $500,000 in cash toward future upkeep of the cemetery. Sinai Memorial will handle all aspects of cemetery management, funeral arrangements and plot sales, as it does for cemeteries it owns in Colma and unincorporated Briones in the East Bay. (It also has funeral homes in Redwood City and Lafayette, manages cemeteries in Richmond and Lafayette and works with all of the Jewish cemeteries in the area.)
Salkin said there won’t be changes in pricing over the next year, and Temple Sinai members will keep their 10 percent discount on burials. He also said Sinai Memorial Chapel recognizes the synagogue community’s historic bond with the cemetery.
“We’ll be doing periodic communication to Temple Sinai in the months ahead just to give them a status report,” he said.
With the transfer done, work has begun on new curbs and gutters at Home of Eternity. Salkin said there would be a major cleanup of the landscape, as well as a long-term project to prop up monuments that are listing or in danger of toppling, fixes that require getting in touch with families. There will be expanded space for burials and cremated remains, and the 1930s mausoleum will also get an update.
“The infrastructure will be brought up to a higher standard,” he said. “We’ve just signed a contract with a roofing contractor. We’re putting on a new roof.”
All of this work should be visible when people visit the cemetery, Salkin said, and make a difference in how the space looks and feels to anyone who walks in.
“There will be an exclamation point,” he said. “There will be a noticeable set of improvements.”