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How I Found Life in the Business of Death

How I Found Life in the Business of Death

Gravestones on lawn in a Jewish cemetery

Often, people ask me how a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest who grew up in a classical Reform congregation landed in New York City running one of the largest funeral chapels in the metropolitan region that is owned and operated by the Jewish community.

My answer is always the same: “Divine intervention and a life committed to being a Jewish volunteer.”  

Initially, my life was all about performing. From the age of three, I studied dance five days a week until a knee injury sidelined me from my high school weekend job as a Chiefette for the Kansas City Chiefs. Nonetheless, I still found time for the Reform youth movement, both locally in my synagogue and in the region through MOVTY, the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth, and spent holidays and many weekends attending conclaves from Denver to Indianapolis. My congregation was a second home to me and like my parents, who were involved in all aspects of temple life, I embraced their passion for all things Jewish. Not surprisingly, I vacillated regularly between two different idols: Debbie Friedman and Barbra Streisand and depending upon the day, I’d stand in front of my bedroom mirror, guitar in hand, singing “Don't Rain on My Parade” or “Sing unto God.” Thankfully, the vinyls never wore out.

After earning a degree in theater, I moved to New York with my beau to live my dream as a struggling actor and waiter, awaiting my big break. After we married, I signed with the William Morris Agency in the late 1970s and began my career auditioning for and acting in commercials – more than 1,000 in a 20-year span. A few years later, our son attended nursery school at the 92nd Street Y and we found ourselves spending the High Holidays with friends and family, going from temple to temple in search of that elusive one to call home.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, which found our family in northern Westchester County, once again seeking a synagogue to call home. We landed at Temple Shaaray Tefila, in Bedford Corners, NY, a congregation that simply said we welcome you, we urge you to participate, and we guarantee we will know who you are. Before long, I was chairing and co-chairing various committees, serving on the board, and ultimately, was elected the congregation’s president. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience as president, which included fundraising for a capital campaign and watching our congregation grow tremendously,

I had no idea the role would hold the key to my future. 

Five years later, my union, SAG/AFTRA, went on strike and I found myself walking a picket line daily and then trying to resurrect a successful career. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and I began a search for my “second act.” Although I had no intention of working in the Jewish community, I already knew so many people there that it seemed like a natural place to start my search.  

Within two weeks, Al Engelberg, a major philanthropist, reached out to me. “You're an actor and an activist,” he said. “Have I got a job for you.” When I asked him what he had in mind, he told me "The Jewish community of New York has just opened a funeral chapel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’m the chairman of the board and I'd like to talk to you.”

A funeral chapel?? Was he kidding?

For starters, I knew nothing about traditional Jewish burial, tahara (ritual preparation of a body for burial), shomrim (those who watch over the body until burial), or the chevra kadisha (the sacred burial society), whose members ensure the preparations are conducted according to Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, Al convinced me we should meet and chat. During that meeting, he suggested I visit the chapel.

When I entered on that wintry day, a funeral service was about to begin. A “shomer” was reciting psalms, a candle was lit, and the casket was laid out. Although the board was looking for someone to reach out to the community, and I didn't know exactly what I might bring to the table, I was struck by the pristine, sacred space in the midst of Manhattan – and grateful that someone was offering me an opportunity to work.

I jumped right in, initially as the director of community relations, a post I held for 11 years. Following the  untimely death of our executive director, the board named me as the chief administrative officer, which is the position I hold today. I am humbled that my connections within the Jewish community, my service as a synagogue president, and my commitment to the future of Judaism all were instrumental in laying the groundwork for this “second act” in my career.

In fact, the skills I acquired during years of volunteering enable me to reach out and pursue conversations and relationships with clergy members, social workers, synagogue executive directors, and community leaders from across Jewish denominations. Thanks to years spent in boardrooms, I also understand governance, how an efficient board works, and what it means to build community while also reaching out to community. Most of all, I welcome the daily reminder that we don't get the day back and to appreciate my fortune in finding sacred, life-affirming service in the world of death.   

Stephanie Garry is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s North American board of trustees, the Commission on Social Action,and the executive committee of North American board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She is the chief administrative officer of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, Inc. Stephanie and her family belong to Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY, as well as Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Temple Shaaray Tefila, both in New York City.

 

Stephanie Garry
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