There are few times when a sense of community is more necessary than when our lives are touched by death. Perhaps that is why more than 400 people from every point along the spectrum of the Los Angeles Jewish community came together Sunday at the site of the new Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary in Simi Valley for the opening of the park's chapel and administration building.
Although the Mount Sinai Park in Hollywood Hills has long been a center of the Los Angeles Jewish community, officials there realized more than 10 years ago that at their then-present rate of growth, the cemetery would run out of ground internment space by the year 2015. The search for a new and larger site led to the former Douglas Ranch in Simi Valley, which had served as a recreation center for defense workers during World War II. The spacious parcel will enable Mount Sinai, a not-for-profit agency owned and operated by Sinai Temple, to continue providing burial space "for the next 200 years," official said.
"There are probably 15 acres remaining undeveloped at Hollywood Hills of the 82 acres when we started," said Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mount Sinai. "In Simi Valley we have about twice the land area and whereas here in Hollywood there are areas that are not really ideal for grave sites, in Simi almost all the land will work for ground burial or building a mausoleum."
Set against the hills above the 118 Freeway, the 165-acre site was consecrated as a Jewish cemetery in March 1997. Construction began the following year with plans to begin internments in August 2000. Total costs for construction are estimated at $18 million.
Sunday's ceremony included a tour of the administration building and the dedication of the chapel, which has been renamed the Kaminer Chapel in honor of Dr. Edward Kaminer of Sinai Temple, who was instrumental in raising funds for the new park.
The ceremony drew rabbis and other community leaders from the city of Los Angeles and the surrounding valleys, as well as representatives from Gov. Gray Davis' office, the Southern California Board of Rabbis and the city of Simi Valley. Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple's spiritual leader, gave a brief but moving speech thanking Kaminer and donor Ruth Ziegler for their contributions to the park and noting the important role Mount Sinai plays in supporting the bereaved.
"Here perhaps more than any other place we will remember the Talmudic admonition that we must bless the bad as well as the good," Wolpe said. "Parents... children... husbands and wives [mourning the loss of loved ones] - this chapel will be made sacred by their love."
Whereas the Hollywood Hills site is known for its "Americana" motif and rolling green hills, the new park, designed by Robert Levonian for Behr Browers Architects Inc., uses a combination of stone, glass and light wood to reflect the golden hillside on which it is built, similar to those of Jerusalem. The architecture and stained-glass windows in the chapel and the soon-to-be constructed Caves of Abraham burial structure - a traditional cave-style burial site that will conform to Israeli designs approved by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel - all build on a theme of the Old City.
A unique feature of the memorial park is the Ziegler Center, a study center and museum which is being developed as an electronic library and archive covering the history of Jewish community life in Los Angeles. The center is scheduled to open in 2001.
Saltzman recognizes that some families will continue to try to "stay together in death as in life" at the Hollywood Hills site. However, in a shrewd marketing move, Mount Sinai is charging about half as much for burial plots in Simi Valley as at the old park. Already, 1400 spaces in the new park have been sold. "There's no question that there will be people who forego the savings in Simi in order to be buried with other members of their family," Saltzman said. "But there will be other people who live out there [near Simi] or have children out there or who simply think it is a beautiful place and so will choose the Simi Valley site.
"I think the major hurdle we will have is psychological. It seems very far from the West side," Saltzman continued. "But every time someone drives out there they tell me it only took about 35 minutes. They're always amazed, but it's just that you get on the 405 to the 118 and then you're there."