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JLife speaks to Mike Lewin, chair of LJOC about how the association preserves Leeds’ Jewish burial sites and the challenges it faced amid a global pandemic.

Appointed as chair of the Leeds Jewish Orthodox Cemetery management association (LJOC) in October 2019, it has certainly been a tricky first year in charge for Mike Lewin. Heading up one of the region’s most critical community organisations in the time of coronavirus has meant that LJOC has been right at the heart of operations, as the Leeds Jewish community worked together in the height of the pandemic.

Formed in 2006, when the shuls of Leeds – BHH Synagogue, UHC Leeds and Etz Chaim Synagogue – agreed the synagogue sextons should come together and pool resources as an umbrella organisation, LJOC was established. This meant that all main Jewish grounds and cemeteries in the area, including the BHH and UHC cemetery on Gelderd Road, Etz Chaim cemetery on Whitehall Road and other historic cemeteries, were now under the care of community members from shuls across the city.

With some of the cemeteries founded over 100 years ago, and thousands of graves and memorials to tend to, four sextons are tasked with various duties, principally the upkeep of the grounds and most recently, ensuring the safety of visitors. COVID-19 must have created tough dilemmas, but was it difficult to transition into the new rulings across multiple sites? “Though each shul is responsible for their own buildings within the grounds, all were updated to remain within the government and Chief Rabbi guidelines for cleanliness quite swiftly.” Mike revealed.

One of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic has been the restrictions to funeral services and ceremonies. Mike and the team at LJOC have had to make difficult decisions that have impacted many families: “At the moment the attendance regulations for funerals and consecrations, including funeral staff, sextons and clergy, is 30, and we rigidly keep to that out of respect for the law. If anything changes then we will respond to that immediately. We haven’t used the ohelim since the rules came in and so far, have conducted funerals outside.

“Everybody recognised the absolute legal responsibility for it, but it was very upsetting in the earlier days of the pandemic when the restrictions meant people were unable to say kaddish. But we all recognised that safety was paramount.”

Mike stresses that they are guided by what the association can afford, like many community organisations, but despite this, the cemeteries are subject to continual inspections to make sure that they remain fit for purpose and are neatly kept: “The three main orthodox shuls financially support LJOC and we recognise that because the cemeteries go back many years, unfortunately the graves that were there from the earliest years will be affected by wear and tear, as well as subsidence, the most. But we remain absolutely vigilant about the dignity of the cemeteries and the respect that they deserve.

“Everything we do is within the strictest halachah, so that if anyone wishes to visit they will be within an environment that is respectful and dignified for them and their loved ones.”

A upcoming scheme will involve the laying of pathways within the next six to nine months so that visitors do not leave the cemeteries sodden and muddy, meaning that people can pay their respects throughout the year, particularly over the winter when the harsher weather conditions set in.  The spraying and weeding of the extensive parkland is an ongoing task for all the cemeteries all year round, and takes plenty of organisation by around 10 volunteers who give up their free time to maintain it. Mike also revealed that the open space between BHH and UHC cemeteries will be used for burials in 12 months’ time, as both will be reaching full capacity within the next two years.

This momentous year also saw the creation of a new LJOC website, designed to engage the Leeds Jewish community further about the work the association does, but also, to provide a comprehensive platform for friends and family to access support during their bereavement. Mike explains more: “Its main purpose is to answer questions or concerns regarding death or bereavement in a halachic way for those who need it, especially if they cannot speak face-to-face with a member of the clergy.”

In this time of distancing and isolation, a pioneering aspect of the site has become ever more relevant for those who wish to commemorate those they have lost in recent years, and crucially, this year. The LJOC website provides the opportunity to create an online memorial for those who have passed, and even donate in their name to worthy causes in memory of the deceased person. Mike adds: “Essentially, the online memorial pages offer an ongoing opportunity for individuals to post relevant information about their loved ones and a central place to memorialise them. It means that mourners around the world can now also pay their respects.”

Managing a bereavement, an important stage in the Jewish lifecycle, is personal to everyone, Mike concludes, but hopes that the community will use LJOC services in whatever way they feel comfortable: “It depends on each individual how they use our facilities and how they come to terms with bereavement. If they wish to use our website and our facilities, then hopefully they will gain some benefit from them. But respecting their choice is essential.”

As an innovative cross-communal scheme, Mike is honoured that the work of LJOC has been well-received, in Leeds and beyond, by those who have needed to use their resources. He remains steadfast in maintaining the dignity of those deceased and the family and friends who mourn them.

For information about funeral services, bereavement resources and advice about creating a memorial for your loved one, visit Ljoc.org.uk.