A Mortuary Comes to Life

The story of Chevra Kadisha Mortuary and its significance to Los Angeles’ observant community is an ongoing saga of crime, punishment and redemption surrounding an institution that deals with one of the most holy times in the Jewish life cycle. And, as in the grand cycle of life and death, the tale of Chevra Kadisha has come full circle.

The mortuary, one of only two run by Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles, reopened for business on Feb. 25, 14 months after its license was temporarily suspended by the state. The facility is now in full compliance with the law, says Jeffrey Brown, field representative for the state Department of Consumer Affairs Cemetery and Funeral Programs.

Chevra Kadisha was temporarily closed in December 1997 just before its founder, Zalman Manela, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading no contest to charges of forgery and grand theft. He was accused of stealing some $55,000 from a deceased woman, Celia Klein, according to LAPD Detective Stacey Morris, the primary investigator in the case. Manela intended to use the money to pay for Klein’s funeral and to donate funds in her memory to charity, Manela’s wife, Rachel, told The Journal. He returned all the money immediately upon his arrest, Morris said.

Zalman Manela declined to speak with The Journal.

Today, the founder and former director of Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, who was released from prison Feb. 18, is no longer involved in the family business. When the mortuary was allowed to reopen in February, it was only under the condition that Manela have nothing to do with the business, Brown said.

And so Rachel Manela, who was never before involved in the business, obtained a funeral director’s license and assumed presidency of Chevra Kadisha Mortuary last winter. She now runs the establishment with the help of her 26-year-old son, Yosef, and her son-in-law, Samuel Birnhack.

Since the facility reopened, she told The Journal, the community has been returning to Chevra Kadisha. The mortuary has performed about a funeral a day since Feb. 25, approaching the amount of business it did before the facility closed in 1997.

“I was very surprised, but we’ve been very busy,” said Rachel, 50, in Chevra Kadisha’s spare offices behind the simple, light blue facade at 7832 Santa Monica Blvd. near Fairfax. “I guess that means people do trust us, and that’s been very gratifying for our family.”

The response wasn’t surprising to several prominent Orthodox rabbis. When Chevra Kadisha closed, the concern was so great that two dozen observant rabbis hurriedly gathered for emergency meetings called by the Rabbinical Council of California. The mortuary’s role in the observant community had been crucial, because L.A. does not have a true chevra kadisha, a corps of volunteers who perform tahara, the ritual care of the dead, and Jewish burial.

A number of synagogues do have volunteers on call to perform tahara, and all the Jewish mortuaries can arrange for tahara upon request. But Manela’s mortuary was one of only two in Los Angeles run by Orthodox Jews strictly according to Jewish law, or halacha, which requires that a shomer (guard) watches over the deceased, reading psalms until burial; and that the body is washed, dressed in a shroud, placed in a wooden coffin and swiftly buried without embalming or autopsy.

“Chevra Kadisha Mortuary is an extremely important institution,” said Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, RCC president.

“Zalman Manela made mistakes that cannot be condoned,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, immediate past president of the RCC. “On the other hand, he is a good-hearted person. Many people who couldn’t afford burial were buried free by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary over the years. Zalman Manela performed many acts of kindness.”

Chicago-bred Manela, the son of Holocaust survivors, first volunteered to perform tahara while attending a Los Angeles yeshiva at age 17. In his mid-20s, while running his own furniture moving business, he became a grassroots activist to make embalming less routine in California mortuaries, per Jewish law. He handed out flyers on Fairfax and collected signatures for a petition that eventually helped change the law, Rachel Manela said. &’009;

When he discovered that some L.A. mortuaries were still embalming Orthodox Jews, he founded his own Jewish mortuary in a Fairfax Avenue storefront in the late-’70s. At the time, he was a one-man band, driving around town in his old station wagon, his wife said.

Eventually, Manela earned a reputation for performing dozens of free burials for the poor and donating thousands of dollars to charity each year, said Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik of The Jewish Learning Exchange.

But in the summer of 1997, Manela’s charitable zeal apparently went too far. It all began when Celia Klein’s caretaker, Carina Cabellero, visited Manela after her elderly employer died around July 16. Cabellero had found the mortuary’s card amid Klein’s belongings and wanted to know if Manela could help arrange the funeral.

Soon thereafter, believing Klein had no heirs, Manela felt he could “elevate [Klein’s] soul by donating her money to charity,” Rachel said. He also felt that Cabellero deserved some compensation for her months of dutifully caring for Klein.

And so, in subsequent weeks, Manela and Cabellero forged documents that gave Manela power of attorney over Klein’s estate, Detective Morris said. Manela and Cabellero told bank employees the deceased woman was alive and withdrew some $55,000 from her accounts, Morris said.

Manela used his share of the money to pay for Klein’s funeral and placed the rest in a bank account designated for charitable contributions, Rachel Manela told The Journal. Upon his arrest, Manela immediately returned all the money he had taken from Klein’s accounts.

At his sentencing hearing, some 60 observant Jews and two rabbis turned out to support the Manela family. They cried, prayed, read psalms and begged the judge for leniency.

When Manela was taken to state prison, the state temporarily closed Chevra Kadisha Mortuary and launched its investigation of the facility. In the end, court documents stated that Manela had engaged in activities beyond the theft from Celia Klein’s bank accounts. He had illegally sold Klein’s burial plot at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and buried her in one of his own four cemeteries, the documents said. He had failed to properly place in trust monies for funeral services received in advance of need and had changed causes of death on two death certificates. (Rachel Manela said her husband did so to prevent autopsy and to facilitate speedy burial, per Jewish law.)

Chevra Kadisha was allowed to reopen in February as long as Manela was uninvolved in the business and the facility properly placed pre-need funds in trust according to a state-imposed schedule, among other conditions. Brown, who is monitoring the facility, said that so far the mortuary is complying with all requirements.

Meanwhile, as a result of all the emergency meetings, the RCC is now spearheading a community effort that will make tahara more widely available to Jews in Los Angeles. The Chesed Shel Emes Society of L.A., a corps of some 125 volunteers who will perform tahara for free upon request, should be up and running in May, said Rabbi Yakov Krause of Young Israel of Hancock Park, the society’s chair. The volunteers, who are mostly in their 30s, have already attended several classes by leading tahara authorities and have even handled a few preliminary cases.

“Jewish burial societies historically have been community-run organizations,” Krause explains. “Los Angeles hasn’t had one, because we’re a newer Jewish community. But we’re coming of age, and the time has come.”