For the first time in 30 years, the committee that brought reduced-priced Jewish funerals to the Washington area has a new president.
Arthur Hessel, a District of Columbia resident and member of Adas Israel Congregation, has taken over the reins from Bob Hausman, who has been involved with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington since its inception.
The committee works with Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring and Cunningham Turch Funeral Home in Alexandria to provide Jewish funerals. The contracts with these funeral homes include a plain pine box casket, burial shrouds, facilities to perform the ritual washing and watching over the body, and use of a chapel.
The charge for these services is $1,849 at Hines Rinaldi and $1,820 at Cunningham Turch.
According to the National Association of Funeral Directors, the average cost of a funeral in the Washington-Baltimore area was $9,010 in 2013.
The committee also has an agreement with the Fram Monument Company in Rockville for reduced prices on brass markers and granite cemetery memorial stones.
More than 40 area synagogues belong to the funeral committee. However, any Jewish person is eligible to use its services.
Hessel has been on the committee for more than three years and is active on the bereavement committee at Adas Israel, which his wife chairs. “It’s sort of a family business,” he said.
Funerals for between 250 and 300 people take place through the committee each year, and Hessel said his goal is for more families to use the reduced-cost service when a loved one has died.
That is one of the reasons, when electing Hessel, the committee also seated its first rabbi, William Rudolph, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. Rudolph, the committee’s new vice president, is charged with helping spread the word about the reduced-price funerals to area synagogues.
Hessel also hopes to connect with Jewish people unaffiliated with a synagogue but who might be interested in a Jewish burial at a low cost.
Also, Hessel said he hopes to educate the community that cremation is not a part of the Jewish tradition and shouldn’t be an alternative to a Jewish burial.
Hessel, a retired real estate lawyer, was elected on Oct. 29. Also chosen were vice presidents Rudolph and David Zinner, secretary Carole Klein and treasurer Allan Armus.
Hausman will remain active on the committee he helped form in the mid-1970s. At that time, Hausman attended a retreat with Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, where talk centered on Noah and what an honorable person is.
Around that time, the book The American Way of Death by Jessica Milford was making the rounds and some of the congregants were discussing the high costs of funerals and how vulnerable people are when a loved one just died.
Hausman and the others attending a session on what makes an honorable community decided to see if they could improve the way Jewish funerals were conducted.
They spoke with Nathan Abramowitz, rabbi emeritus at Tifereth Israel, to determine what they could do to smooth the way during the grieving process. Of high concern was how to have equality in death so that the ability to have a proper burial wouldn’t depend on how much money a person made, Hausman said.
At that time, only the wealthy had their funerals in the sanctuary, he said.
Hausman visited local Jewish funeral homes, which have since either gone out of business or merged with another company, he said. “We sat down with them” to try and work out a reduced-price funeral, he added, recalling that his group suggested at that time that the cost be around $450.
With no agreement in sight, the committee turned to nonsectarian funeral homes, which Abramowitz told them was acceptable since some Jews live in areas where there are no Jewish funeral homes and must use what is available.
An agreement was reached with Hines Rinaldi, which has remained in effect ever since. The Silver Spring funeral home held 230 funerals this year through the committee’s contract.
Prior to the committee’s work, Jewish funerals tended to include embalming, Hausman said. Sometimes, funeral homes even held viewings “where mourners and well-wishers would see the body in an open coffin prior to the funeral, just like gentile funerals.” Such customs are traditionally frowned upon by Jewish law.
Thinking back on what the committee has accomplished, Hausman declared, “I am proud. We have changed the whole culture of Jewish death in the D.C. area.”