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Putting Jewish Burial Concerns to Rest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The twilight sun bakes its white stone facade a golden hue evocative of the Holy Land. Perched on a hillside that overlooks the Ronald Reagan Freeway, its 165-acre presence demands attention from drivers.

The largest Jewish cemetery in the Western states, twice the size of its sister in the Hollywood Hills, opened two weeks ago in eastern Ventura County.

Mount Sinai Memorial Park, the $18-million nonprofit cemetery in Simi Valley, will not bury its first person before July, but the park has already established itself as a fixture in this community of commuters.

Its architects were told to make it that way. The buildings and under-construction burial sites are meant to operate for at least two centuries, encouraged by the positive initial response of the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest.

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Cemeteries, like any enterprise, must plan for growth. As Mount Sinai’s 82-acre Hollywood Hills location filled--its managers said the cemetery can sustain about a decade more of burials--its overseers began looking for land.

An estimated 550,000 Jews live in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to a 1997 survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The survey also showed Jewish family migration pushing north and west, a growth pattern Mount Sinai anticipated when placing the cemetery, park spokesman Robert Sax said.

While most of the park’s eventual 300,000 sites are years from being available, park management thought that advance purchases would trickle in. But business has been anything but tepid. As of last week, 1,400 plots had been sold.

Much of the park’s early interest has originated in Thousand Oaks, Sax said, home to the county’s largest Jewish community, as well as in the San Fernando Valley.

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Marty Breverman, a member of Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, has already purchased plots for himself, his wife and his parents.

Breverman, 47, a restaurateur, helps his temple sell some of the 212 Mount Sinai plots it purchased so members of its congregation could be buried near one another. The temple bought its spaces two years ago, when the park was still a sketch.

“It’s a convenient area, and the park is quite a beautiful park,” Breverman said. “We felt there was some growth potential and, as a temple, we could make some money also.”

Rabbi Shimon Paskow of Temple Etz Chaim explained that Judaism has always made post-life care for the body a priority. The body is the vessel of the soul, he said, so it must be treated with respect.

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Paskow spoke diplomatically about the cemetery’s arrival, noting that non-Jewish cemeteries in Westlake and Camarillo, among others, partitioned Jewish-only sections, where the ground was consecrated for a proper burial.

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He called the arrival of Mount Sinai to Ventura County both timely and welcome. Many of the Jewish-only sections at area cemeteries are either filled or nearing capacity, he said.

“Since we are a tiny minority, we can’t force ourselves on a general cemetery,” Paskow said. “This will be a Jewish cemetery all to itself; it will have a beautiful Jewish chapel, with Jewish themes and historical items.”

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Roseanne Lupoli manages one of Ventura County’s other burial options for Jewish residents. Her cemetery, Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo, has a separate section for Jews, charging $1,480 per plot for ground burial.

“It’s going to be a competitor to us, but I also understand that Jewish people do need something like what Mount Sinai is doing in Ventura County,” she said. “In the past people have had to go into Los Angeles if they wanted a strictly Jewish cemetery.”

What gives the Simi cemetery its appeal, Sax said, are its unique features.

Each of the buildings’ exterior walls, in addition to the old-world arches inside the park’s 410-seat funeral chapel, are made with Jerusalem stone.

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The milk-white stone, with its specks of red and sandy feel, was dug and cut in Israel and shipped here. When all of the burial sites are done, the cemetery will have used 48,097 square feet of the Jerusalem stone.

The chapel, lit with multicolored windows that mark each day of creation, has sturdy oak benches and rear archways like those in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was designed to foster the Jewish funeral mix of mourning and celebration, Sax said.

Another feature, the Caves of Abraham, set for completion in 2001, separates the Simi cemetery from all other Jewish burial options in North America, including the park’s tradition-rich Mount Sinai sister in Los Angeles.

Carved into the arid, beige hillside, the Caves of Abraham will offer more than 1,000 people a Torah-scripted burial option whose historical origins were unearthed during a recent Israeli archeological dig, Sax said.

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Unlike many mausoleums, which are built up from the ground, the caves’ burial slots will be built into the hillside. A bank of three-high crypt spaces will stretch across four separate cave-like entrances, each mouthed by lush green gardens.

“A decent funeral and burial are the greatest gifts you can give,” Sax said. “They are the one favor that cannot be returned.”

A few paces beyond the right-side chapel windows sit a few newly planted trees. They mark a spot that soon will house the Forest of the Righteous Gentiles, a tribute to non-Jews who gave their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Fred Ellsberg, director of marketing and sales for the cemetery, said prices for park burials range from $1,500 to $8,000, and payment plans are available for those who need additional time to offset costs.

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Like Mount Sinai, approximately 80% of California cemeteries are operated as nonprofits, said William Conway, executive vice president of the Interment Assn. of California. In most cases, Conway said, the churches that run the cemeteries either keep the surplus, reduce plot costs or make improvements to their cemeteries.

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At Mount Sinai, though, all profits are donated to community charities and organizations, from the Boys & Girls Club of Simi Valley to the UCLA chapter of the Hillel Jewish student group, Ellsberg said.

Between 80 and 90% of park revenues are spent on operating costs, including salaries and upkeep, he said, so there is not much surplus to be had.

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“Mount Sinai Memorial Park really does a nice job, and to me, the one in L.A. is one of the nicest cemeteries I’ve seen in the world,” Paskow said. “I’m sure this one will be even nicer.”

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