When asked about the work he does at the Hebrew Free Burial Society, Philip A. Goldman, the organization’s intake coordinator, spoke of the importance of having a sense of empathy.
“Each story is an individual story, and at that time it’s all very sad,” said Goldman. “You’re dealing with people that can’t afford to bury their family. And [you] try to be understanding, you try to help them as much as you can.”
The Hebrew Free Burial Society is an organization that assists in the burying of indigent members of the Jewish community. Goldman, 72, a resident of Rockville and member of both B’nai Israel Congregation and Shaare Tefila Congregation, has been at the organization for over 20 years.
“We had a case just recently where there was a person [who] had a family member in Garden of Remembrance [Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery], and [they’d] fallen on hard times. They couldn’t afford one, a funeral,” Goldman said. “And we were able to arrange for a plot to be donated by the Garden of Remembrance for them.”
Goldman often does his work at home, he said, while also adding that “wherever I have a phone is my office.”
His first task is to find out if the person to be buried is both indigent and Jewish, and whether the person qualifies for the Burial Society’s assistance. After a funeral home sets a time and date for the funeral, Goldman arranges for a rabbi to be present at the ceremony, while also contacting the caretaker who will dig the grave. Goldman also oversees the funeral itself, assisting the rabbi when necessary.
Goldman was born in the District and has lived in Maryland for most of his life. He remembered his father, Henry, as being very active in a number of Jewish charitable organizations, and was president of a local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.
He attended what was then the Hebrew Academy from kindergarten through second grade, before transferring to public schools. Goldman attended the University of Miami for two years studying business administration, though he did not receive a degree, he said.
Goldman’s professional career largely revolved around managing real estate in Rockville on behalf of his family, he said. For a time he owned a record store in Baltimore.
Goldman got involved in the Burial Society when a friend of his father’s asked him to help with some of the work. That was around 1999, he said.
“And it just turned into me running it, eventually,” Goldman said, with a laugh.
With a cemetery in Capitol Heights, the Society typically buries eight to 12 people a year, Goldman said, adding that most of the time their assistance is free. There’s one paid employee who performs maintenance and digs graves.
Goldman said the Burial Society’s board “hardly gets used. I haven’t had a board meeting for quite a while.” Aside from the board members, Goldman is the organization’s only long-term volunteer.
When he needs additional help, Goldman calls on colleagues in the Jewish community: Jewish Social Service Agency, Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care and Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home. Torchinsky helps provide burial plots, Goldman said, and assists with funeral services, as does Sagel Bloomfield. Garden of Remembrance has ordered headstones for the Burial Society at significantly reduced prices.
Goldman said he’s eager for others to become involved.
“I could always use help. I’m 72, I’m not going to last forever. I would like to get somebody that I could pass this down to, but I really don’t know of anybody.”