The three surviving children of the late Roberta and Howard Tobin met representatives from Congregation Poale Zedeck in Orphan’s Court on Monday at a hearing to determine if their father’s remains could be exhumed from Poale Zedeck’s cemetery and transferred to the Star of David section of Homewood Cemetery.
Poale Zedeck has refused to allow the Tobins to transfer Howard Tobin’s remains, saying such a re-interment would violate Jewish law. Howard Tobin has been buried at Poale Zedeck’s cemetery in Richland Township since 1965.
Son Bruce Tobin, daughter Shelly Frankel and daughter Nancy Gottlieb all testified before Judge Lawrence O’Toole that their mother’s last wish was to have Howard’s remains moved to Homewood Cemetery, and that since they were neither Orthodox Jews, nor members of Poale Zedeck, they should not be bound by the decision of Poale Zedeck’s rabbi, Ari Goldberg, to refuse exhumation.
“The Tobin family’s relationship to Poale Zedeck is so marginal that they never consented to be bound by the rules of the cemetery,” argued John Eddy, the Tobins’ attorney.
“There is no nexus between these rules and my clients,” Eddy continued. “The only reason Howard Tobin is interred there is because his widow was in shock, and his brothers buried him there.”
In fact, Bruce Tobin testified, the family’s connection to the Orthodox synagogue had been limited to High Holiday service attendance twice a year, and his own bar mitzva. Following Howard Tobin’s death in 1965, the family began going to Temple Sinai for the High Holidays, rather than Poale Zedeck.
“I admire and respect the Orthodox Jewish people, and their diligence to honor and fulfill their religious beliefs,” Frankel commented after the hearing. “We are proud to be Jewish, we just don’t adhere to the rules and laws as strictly as they do.”
When Howard Tobin died, leaving no instructions for burial, his younger brother arranged for interment at Poale Zedeck Cemetery, in Richland Township, because their father was a member of that congregation.
Tobin’s son, Steven, who died suddenly in 2008, was buried in the Star of David section of Homewood Cemetery, because the trek to Richland Township to visit Howard’s grave had become too much for Roberta, and it would be easier for her to visit Steven’s grave if it were in Homewood. Because Steven was not married and had no children, it was Roberta’s wish to be buried next to her son, when the time came, so that he would not be alone, and to have Howard’s remains relocated to Homewood as well, keeping the family
Roberta died on Jan. 23, and was buried next to Steven at Homewood Cemetery.
Regardless of the Tobins’ relationship to the synagogue, the attorney for Poale Zedeck, Joel Pfeffer, argued the court must acquiesce to the decision of a cemetery owner when exhumation is a matter of religious law.
“The party that maintains the cemetery has a strong interest [in the remains of the deceased] when it is a matter of ecclesiastical and doctrinal law,” Pfeffer said.
Although there are exceptions to the prohibition against disturbing a deceased’s remains, “it would not be permissible in this case,” Goldberg testified. He said he made his decision after consulting the Shulhan Aruch — the code of Jewish law — as well as Rabbis Shimon Silver, of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh, and Emanuel Gettinger, “a Jewish authority recognized worldwide.”
“The code of Jewish law says a body is not to be removed after it is buried except in a few circumstances,” Goldberg told the court. He identified those circumstances as: 1) to move the remains to Israel; 2) if the cemetery in which the body is buried has deteriorated or has been destroyed; or 3) to move the body to “an ancestral family plot.”
Because Howard Tobin’s parents, as well as some of his siblings, are buried at Poale Zedeck, Goldberg identified that cemetery — not Homewood — as the “ancestral plot” for the Tobin family.
Under cross-examination, Goldberg admitted that, on April 16, Pfeffer sent a letter to the Tobins, telling them that Poale Zedeck’s cemetery had room to accommodate Steven and Roberta if the Tobins wanted to consider moving those bodies to be with Howard.
“So, under Jewish law, it would be OK to move two bodies to your place, but not one body to another place?” Eddy asked Goldberg.
“It would be a possibility,” Goldberg replied.
O’Toole will rule on the case after it receives additional briefing from the Tobins’ attorney.
“I hope that Judge O’Toole rules in our favor,” Frankel said, “but, if not, we will be content with knowing that we tried our best, and know that our mother would be proud of us for our efforts.”
If the judge rules in favor of Poale Zedeck, the Tobins say they will not appeal the decision. The congregation has not decided how it will proceed if O’Toole rules against it, Pfeffer said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)