Plaza Jewish Community Chapel Invests in Community Education as it Retires Debt

The first and only nonprofit Jewish funeral chapel in New York has assisted 7,000 families honor loved ones with affordable Jewish burial and funeral services.

by Stephanie Garry and Tamar Snyder

Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, the first and only nonprofit funeral chapel in New York that is owned and operated by the Jewish Community, will be stepping up its efforts to serve as a valuable community resource on issues of mourning and burial now that it is retiring its debt. This month at its Board of Directors meeting, Plaza will celebrate the final payment on its $1.5 million mortgage, putting the organization on a secure financial footing.

Since it was founded 12 years ago, Plaza has touched the lives of more than 7,000 families – including that of Harold Handler, Plaza’s current Chairman. Two and a half years ago, his father-in-law passed away and they held the funeral at Plaza.

Handler played an influential role in creating the nonprofit Jewish funeral home in 2001 with the goal of reducing the cost and increasing the quality of Jewish funeral and burial services. An existing funeral home on the Upper West Side was purchased for $2.7 million with grants from the Jewish Communal Fund, the UJA-Federation of New York, and $1.25 million in seven-year interest-free loans from eight philanthropists. A governing board of directors made up of clergy, community leaders and executives of social service agencies was established and the work to promote Plaza began.

“There was a great deal of resentment at the commercialization of other funeral homes – we didn’t want mourners to be pushed into buying anything other than a plain pine casket,” says Handler. “We saw a need in offering an affordable option that provides first-rate service but was not commercial, and that paid great respect to the traditions associated with Jewish burial and tahara.”

Jewish Communal Fund, the donor advised fund of the Jewish community of greater New York, provided a significant gift from its Special Gift Fund of $750,000 – the largest institutional grant JCF had ever made at the time – to launch Plaza, with the goal of decreasing the cost of a Jewish funeral for hundreds of families in the New York metropolitan area. In addition, UJA Federation of New York also made a grant of $250,000.

“JCF’s support was truly essential,” says Handler, who served on JCF’s board at the time and later served as President from 2006-2009. “It was one of those moments when everyone came together. JCF’s grant did exactly what we had hoped it would do: provide seed money to an organization to help it get to a place where it could render services to the Jewish community and do so in a sustainable manner.”

Since 2001, Plaza has sponsored 14 conferences dealing with bereavement and loss, which have been attended by clergy, social workers and members of the community. They provide programming in synagogues and community centers ranging from the importance of “Getting your House in Order” (health care proxies and wills) to programs geared to the parents of young children on “How to talk to Children about Death.” Plaza’s facility is used by religious schools as well as by all of the seminaries as a venue to talk about the importance of death in Jewish education and Plaza is also a drop off site for The Afya Foundation, which takes gently used medical supplies and ships them to Africa/Haiti for communities in need. In addition, Plaza was the first funeral chapel in the New York area to stream funerals for families for those who cannot attend. To date, over 700 families have used the service.

In 2010, Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine announced a partnership with Plaza to provide palliative care counseling to two groups of patients who rarely receive it – those with kidney failure and those with moderate to severe memory loss. In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, Plaza’s Social Service committee issues a grant to the New York Board of Rabbis to help assist synagogues in need.

With the mortgage paid off, Plaza’s sustainable financial model will enable it to continue to provide a valuable service while also pioneering additional educational opportunities for the Jewish Community of New York on the topics of Jewish mourning and burial.

Stephanie Garry serves as Director of Community Relations for Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, Inc. Tamar Snyder is the Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications at Jewish Communal Fund.