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Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue (Elisa Rolle)

Cremation has also experienced an increase among the city’s Jewish population, who make up 8 percent of the New York City area’s population. The Jewish faith initially forbade cremation, but the practice has been on the rise among New York’s Reform Jews, said Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, who was a senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue for over 23 years and currently serves as the 92nd Street Y’s director of Jewish community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.

“Cremation would be completely abhorrent according to Jewish law and tradition,” he said. “This has to do with a traditional concept that most people think of as Christian but was actually Jewish before, and that’s the resurrection. If the body was cremated, there was no physical entity to be resurrected.”

Rabbi Rubinstein

Rabbi Rubinstein (Suman Bhattacharyya)

While Orthodox Jews continue to bury their dead and follow all aspects of the death rituals as close to Jewish law as possible, an increasing number of Reform Jews in New York City are choosing to cremate their dead for much the same reasons as Catholics.

“The argument is that no one visits the grave anymore, and that land is becoming scarce,” said Rubinstein. “There’s not any concern about resurrection (among Reform Jews), so there is no reason not to cremate.”

Despite this, Rubinstein notes the act of cremation can be a sensitive topic among some Jews who associate the practice with the Holocaust and are repulsed.

“(Some) Jews still resist that because cremation tends to destroy memory, then you think ‘I’m enacting what was done to us in the worst period of history.’”

Traditional Jewish ritual requires that the burial, which is part of the funeral, should take place as soon as possible after the death, followed by seven-day and three-day mourning periods, after which point the unveiling of the tombstone takes place. But many traditions, particularly among Reform Jews, have undergone some adaptations over time.

In New York, explained Rubinstein, sometimes burials are delayed because the ground is frozen and sometimes procedures required by local laws prevent a burial from taking place right away. The length of the mourning periods also varies.

“As a matter of economics and some other realities, many people would choose not to keep that (the first seven-day mourning period) and say ‘I’ll do that for three days because I can’t take time off work,’ so it’s not that traditions change, it’s how people observe those traditions,” he said. — Suman Bhattacharyya