By Jeff Hoffmann
In late 2014, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit, PB&J Family Services, along with the key support of French’s Funerals, also Albuquerque-based, and the Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque, created a business relationship to produce and provide pine, kosher caskets to New Mexico’s Jewish community.
PB&J Family Services (pbjfamilyservices.org) is dedicated to “helping at-risk children to grow and develop to their full potential in nurturing families within a supportive community.” Fathers Building Futures is a key PB&J program and director Dean Ma’ayan’s passion.
Fathers Building Futures “is a re-entry program for fathers recently released from Los Lunas Men’s Prison or Bernalillo’s Metropolitan Detention Center. [The] program includes pre-and post-release wrap-around support including family-based case management, parenting education, counseling, job training and placement.”
Fathers Building Futures job training includes a large, state-of-the-art woodshop where the caskets are made. During an interview at PB&J headquarters in ABQ, Dean Ma’ayan stated, “Our mission is about connecting formerly incarcerated fathers with their civic and professional promise. In order to do that we need to be a functional sustainable business, while also relying on donations and grants. So as a social enterprise, we take our business development very seriously.”
In order for PB&J to become sustainable, they needed to find the right product to manufacture. They sought out French’s Funerals, who started a mentorship program with several businesses a few years ago to help nonprofits like PB&J launch their ideas.
“French’s Funerals was the best partner for us,” said Ma’ayan; “They became our mentors and we created a sustainable relationship.”
He asked the CEO Tom Antram to get to know PB&J: “We want create a product for you and French’s and be your customer, but first, would you come to this side of the table and teach us how to do that?” From Tom’s smile, Dean knew they were going to make magic together.
Dean Ma’ayan described the relationship with French’s as “dating.” During the first several dates, Dean and the fathers built trust, showing French’s they were an organization of genuine character and dedication.
“French’s saw the work and met with Alonzo. They saw potential, and they taught us how to make a prototype for an urn,” said Ma’ayan. Alonzo, the woodshop director, and his team, accomplished the task with about five different versions of the urn to date.
“By the ninth date,” Dean Ma’ayan stated, “French’s accept our urns and we got an $1,800 check from them. So then we were in the game.”
However, even more than an urn, making a kosher casket to the exact specifications of Jewish law is no simple feat. The casket must be constructed entirely of wood (usually pine), encouraging a natural decomposition.
This time, Dean and the dads received assistance from a local Jewish artist Hershel Weiss who helped with design, and Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, who taught Fathers Building Futures about the Jewish laws that make a casket kosher and, as he stated, “Rabbi Min spiritually talked with our men about what it’s like to handle death and dying in a really sensitive way.”
Many of the fathers at PB&J have experienced death in traumatic and violent ways, some even during their teenage years or younger.
Alonzo, now a staff member and woodshop supervisor at PB&J, is a man who went through Fathers Building Futures’ reentry program. Like many of those at PB&J, Alonzo experienced the violent death of his father at a young age. “I know it is my responsibility to end this cycle for my kids, and I know now what I need to do,” he said.
When asked about what being reunited with his four children meant to him, and what advice he would give fathers recently or at risk of being incarcerated, he replied, “There’s always another way. Asking for help doesn’t always mean that you have a weakness. The weakness that we all have is that we are afraid to say something. It takes a lot of strength to set aside your pride and be able to stay with your kid and provide a home so that he always knows he has stability in his life and he will always be able to come home. You know, just being here at PB&J and having everyone here as resources to be able to talk to has been amazing.”
Alonzo has recently been released from all probation and correctional supervision for the first time in eighteen years. He plans to take his four children and girlfriend to the ocean.
Dean Ma’ayan keenly noted how PB&J’s partnership with French Funerals has also had a powerful influence on the fathers: “Our dads have been around death their entire lives, many of them had seen their own family members killed… and now they’ve made a turn to being able to create caskets, to be able to be a part of death and dying in a new way, and Rabbi Min Kantrowitz was crucial to those first conversations.”
Knowing death and dying in dignified ways runs parallel to the nurturing of love, compassion, and responsibility in life. Rabbi Kantrowitz’s conversations with the fathers were made possible through the strength of the nonprofit and Jewish communities involved.
Rabbi Kantrowitz is a member of the Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque; the association played a crucial role in the completion of the project. It was a happy day for everyone involved when Dean Ma’ayan received a letter stating “The Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque has inspected the pine caskets created by PB&J’s Fathers Building Futures and certifies them to be kosher under Jewish law.”
The Fathers Building Futures project has been fully funded by a grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Family Assistance. However, funding from that grant will end on September 30. So, as Ma’ayan explained, “our entire focus is to become self-sustainable through projects like this and donations to sustain us afterwards.”
The public can now see displayed PB&J’s kosher urns, and can purchase their Jewish kosher caskets. “French’s has remained our mentor in the business community and has held their promise to help us earn their business partnership,” said Ma’ayan.
PB&J and French’s exemplify nonprofit work at its best; in their relationship, dignified death reflects responsible life, and the creative birth of sustainable nonprofit organizations and communities.