It could have been a wedding or a barmitzvah: A lively klezmer band played as several hundred peoplemunched kosher turkey sandwiches and sipped fruit punch at tablesscattered outside a giant white tent. This scene was set against apicturesque landscape of boulder-studded, tree-dotted greenhills.
But the occasional blasts of the shofar echoingfrom the tops of grassy knolls and the biblical processions ofhumanity marching along a dusty path behind a Torah -- stopping nowand then to recite psalms, sing songs and fling handfuls of dirt --hinted at something quite out of the ordinary. And it was. A newJewish cemetery was being dedicated last Sunday in SimiValley.
Actually, the 400-acre site, of which about 162acres will used for the cemetery, represents the westward expansionof Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuary.
Mount Sinai has operated a park in the HollywoodHills under the ownership of Sinai Temple since 1967. That park,originally founded by Forest Lawn in 1953 and an exclusively Jewishcemetery since 1959, is running out of space.
When the search for a new site began about eightyears ago, it was estimated that the Hollywood Hills park might beable to serve Jewish burial needs for only another 25 years, saidMount Sinai General Manager Arnold Saltzman. He said that the questfor affordable, available land took about three years, with anotherfive years required to secure entitlement and satisfy zoningrequirements. The construction of an administrative building andchapel will take two more years.
The hope is that the cemetery will serve theJewish community for the next 250 years -- well past the Jewish year6000, Mount Sinai Marketing Director Fred Ellsberg said. "We'reprojecting something that will last 250 years," he said. "That meanswe believe the United States will be here, Los Angeles or some formof California will be here, and there will be a viable Jewishcommunity here that long."
"You have to have a lot of chutzpah to think thatyou're going to be around for 250 years," said Mount Sinaispokesperson Russ Alden.
Why choose Simi Valley, the peaceful VenturaCounty community catapulted to unwanted national fame when jurorsthere rendered a "not guilty" verdict in the first Rodney King trial?Despite few recent demographic studies of the Jewish community ingreater Los Angeles (one sponsored by the Jewish Federation Councilis nearing completion), evidence points to expansion in the "Venturacorridor," Ellsberg said.
With these factors in mind, Mount Sinai pulled outall the stops last Sunday in promoting its new Jewish "home" in SimiValley. In addition to consecrating the ground as a Jewish burialsite (including dispersing an Israeli-Simi Valley soil mixture), thedaylong program, scheduled on what is said to be the anniversary ofthe death of Moses, featured an ambitious musical program. Includedwere performances by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, along with fivecantoral soloists and choirs from the University of Judaism, ShomreiTorah Synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom, Sinai Temple and Stephen S. WiseTemple.
Among the speakers were the UJ's Rabbi DavidLieber, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of VBS, Rabbi Dr. Abner Weiss ofBeth Jacob Congregation and Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of SinaiTemple.
Pointing to Judaism as a "life-intoxicated faith"that exalts man as almost a twin of God, Shulweis questioned, "Howafter Auschwitz, [can we] retain faith in the human being, the crownof God's creation?" One way, he said, was Mount Sinai's plan to erecta path to honor and remember non-Jews who risked their lives to saveJews during the Holocaust.
"I congratulate the spiritual architects of thisnew memorial ground for setting aside a portion of their sacred landfor the sake of our double memory," Shulweis said, "to remember thatthere was a radical evil and not to forget that there was alsodecency, dignity and moral heroism among God's creation."
Rabbi Weiss reflected on the five Hebrew terms forcemetery that translate to courtyard of death, house of graves, houseof eternity, place of eternity and house of the living. Countriessuch as Poland, where many Jews lie buried but few Jews still live,are truly "chatzer mavet," courtyards of death, he said. If there isno end to the rate of intermarriage and diminishing Jewishinvolvement in Los Angeles, the rabbi warned, the new cemetery in theJewish year 6000 (2240 C.E.) may also be a place of death rather thanof life or eternity.
Creating "first-class" Jewish day-school programsfor our children is an important way of making sure that our gravesites, as well as our cities, will be "bet ha-chayim," houses ofliving, he said.
An estimated 2,300 people attended the dedication,and many seemed truly moved by the experience.
"As people die, you realize you have to be part ofthe process," said Paula Neustadt, a slender young woman who camewith her mother. "It's part of life that we can't escape."
Some came with practical considerations in mind."We're looking to buy here," said Sophie Carver Miller, a Simi Valleyresident accompanied by her husband, Alvin.
"But she feels very well," Alvin hastened tosay.
That there are so few Jews in Simi Valley doesn'tbother Alvin right now, he said. "But when I die, I want to be in aJewish neighborhood."