The Toronto Board of Rabbis calls on Benjamin’s funeral home owners to ‘uphold their sacred responsibilities’ after complaints

The organization representing Toronto’s Conservative and Reform rabbis is “deeply concerned” about the allegations against the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel funeral home operators, concerning years of what the industry licensing body called “inappropriate” business practices, and at least five investigations by the body, known as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario.

The rabbis issued a written statement to The CJN on Friday, Sept. 2.

The statement, which was unsigned, was sent from the president, Rabbi Yael Splansky, of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. A copy is also being sent to Michael Benjamin, the head of the Benjamin funeral home group, Rabbi Splansky said.

yael Splansky
Rabbi Yael Splansky, of Holy Blossom Temple, is president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis. (CJN photo).

The rabbis urged Benjamin’s and all funeral homes serving the community to “uphold their sacred responsibilities, maintain a sacred trust, and treat mourners with fairness, compassion and transparency.”

Benjamin’s owns two of the Jewish funeral homes in the Toronto area, while Steeles Memorial Chapel, which is also a privately owned company, owns the third.

The rabbis noted the “critical role” which Benjamin’s has played for the Jewish community in the past century for bereaved families. However, the rabbis wrote that they are “deeply concerned” about the allegations against the company, and about the rulings issued by the provincial funeral industry watchdog.

Benjamin’s has been in the headlines for over a month, after a grieving Toronto couple—Raziel and Jeanne Zisman—came forward about their legal battles launched after they learned the Benjamin Foundation deducted 10 percent of the charitable donations made in their late son Liam Zisman’s name, for administration fees.

The BAO ruled in late July that the fees are to be restored, and all the money transferred immediately to the family’s two designated charities: Chai Lifeline Canada and Camp Quality. The registrar’s decision pointed out that the Zismans were not told up front about the fees, during the family’s virtual arrangements meeting on the day their son died in early January of 2022.

Although they did sign the contract via email, authorizing the donation money to be channeled through the Benjamin Foundation, the Zismans insist they were too distraught at the time to read the document carefully. Plus, they did not need the Foundation’s services, since they already told Benjamin’s which charities should be on their son’s funeral notice.

The Benjamin Foundation was created 40 years ago to provide a place for mourners to park charitable donations, until a plan can be made on what to do with the money. Several of the Benjamin family members are directors of the Foundation, with day-to-day operations carried out by an executive director and office staff.

The funeral home has appealed the BAO’s ruling to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, arguing the licensing body has no jurisdiction over the Foundation, because it is a separate entity and not part of the funeral services provided.

In the meantime, Benjamin’s has agreed to make a series of changes to how its Foundation and related businesses operate. Most significantly, while the case is before the courts, as The CJN has reported, it will temporarily suspend the longstanding practice of charging 10 percent in administration fees on donations through the Foundation, for current and future funerals.

However, Benjamin’s is pushing back on the BAO’s other ruling on the same matter which was issued Aug. 10: by January 2023, Benjamin’s was ordered to refund all the money taken for administration fees by the Foundation during the past six years, dating back to 2016, and send the proceeds directly to the affected charities. This could amount to $200,000, and impact hundreds of families’ memorial funds.

In a statement, the Zismans say the funeral home has been holding on to the donations in their son’s name for eight months, and is refusing to comply with the BAO’s ruling on July 28 to release all the funds immediately to the family’s designated two charities.

“Every single dollar donated in Liam Jacob’s memory continues to languish in the Foundation’s bank account,” Raziel Zisman writes. “That is sacred money…it does not belong to Benjamin’s.”

Rabbis declined to speak until now

Until now, the organization representing many of Toronto’s rabbis has chosen to stay out of the discussion about Benjamin’s practices. This is despite many rabbis confiding privately that they have been critical of the funeral home’s methods for a long time.

Some said they could not speak out due to how many rabbis rely on the fees they earn when they are called in to officiate at funerals for people who do not belong to synagogues. The standard rates for payment in 2022 are $900 for a complete chapel service with burial, and $750 for either a graveside or a chapel service.

The complete statement from the Toronto Board of Rabbis, is reproduced as follows:

TBR’s Timely Statement on our Community’s Sacred Obligations of K’vod HaMeit (to show respect for the dead) and Nichum Aveilim (to comfort mourners)—Sept. 1, 2022

Jewish tradition regards the care for the deceased and their mourning relatives with utmost reverence. The Toronto Board of Rabbis is, therefore, deeply concerned about the recent allegations against Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel and the decisions taken by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario in its regard. 

We appreciate the critical role that Benjamin’s has played in the life of bereaved families for a full century now. We expect that Benjamin’s and all funeral homes serving our community will uphold their sacred responsibilities, maintain a sacred trust, and treat mourners with fairness, compassion, and transparency. 

We are encouraged by the steps being taken and pray this matter will be resolved swiftly for the greater good of the Jewish community.

[Ed. note: Steeles is an advertiser with The CJN, while Benjamin’s has now notified The CJN it will no longer advertise, despite longstanding support for the newspaper.]