Shouldering the burden of forgotten cemeteries

The old Jewish cemetery in Douglas, Ariz., is being cared for by a Syrian Orthodox woman who says she honors the memory of all immigrants. (Helen Affsa)

The old Jewish cemetery in Douglas, Ariz., is being cared for by a Syrian Orthodox woman who says she honors the memory of all immigrants. (Helen Affsa)

The Brith Sholem cemetery in Hamilton Township, N.J., was overgrown and neglected before Stan Cohen started taking care of it two years ago. (Stan Cohen)

The Brith Sholem cemetery in Hamilton Township, N.J., was overgrown and neglected before Stan Cohen started taking care of it two years ago. (Stan Cohen)

Two years after Stan Cohen started his clean-up, the Brith Sholem cemetery near Trenton, N.J., looks remarkably better. (Stan Cohen)

Two years after Stan Cohen started his clean-up, the Brith Sholem cemetery near Trenton, N.J., looks remarkably better. (Stan Cohen)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — The old Jewish cemetery in Eufaula, Ala., hasn’t been used in years.

“The monuments are just crumbling,” said Sara Hamm.

She and her family are the last Jews living in this once-booming cotton and railway town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The Jewish cemetery’s first burial dates from 1845, when German Jews began arriving as merchants and dry goods salesmen. They bought a synagogue in 1873, but sold it in the early 1900s when their numbers dwindled to several dozen. The cemetery, with its 84 burial plots, fell into disrepair.

In the mid-1980s Hamm’s grandmother Jennie Rudderman began restoring it, righting headstones and clearing away brush. After she died in 1999, Hamm took over as volunteer caretaker. But the job is wearing her down.

“It’s been left to its own accord now, like everything else in small-town America,” she said.

Similar stories repeat across the land, from the rust belt of western Pennsylvania to the Bible Belt in the South. As factories closed down and populations shifted westward, once-thriving Jewish communities declined and synagogues shut their doors. The only thing left behind, in many cases, were the cemeteries — with no one, or almost no one, to take care of them.

“The Jewish community knows there is a problem of abandoned cemeteries, but they feel it’s someone else’s problem, or the problem of the descendants of those buried there,” said Gary Katz, president of the 4-year-old Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, or CAJAC, which spearheads efforts to clean and maintain distressed cemeteries in New York City. “But throughout Jewish history, cemeteries have been a communal responsibility.”

The Jewish Cemetery Project of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies lists 1,375 Jewish cemeteries in the United States and 72 in Canada, but project coordinator Ellen Renck says more may exist.

No one knows how many of those cemeteries are at risk; experts estimate there may be several hundred.

Jewish donors and volunteers are chasing after their roots in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, cleaning up the abandoned cemeteries of their ancestors, but similar attention has not been paid to the at-risk cemeteries of their parents and grandparents in the United States.

“It’s an error for people to think it’s only in Eastern Europe that cemeteries are in disrepair,” said Nolan Altman, coordinator of the online burial registry of JewishGen, a Jewish genealogical website. “It’s right here at home.”

Some of these at-risk cemeteries are completely abandoned, while others are at various stages of management. Some are privately owned. Others are owned by synagogues that no longer exist or fraternal societies with just one or two living members.

“You don’t hear about cemeteries in distress until things get really bad, until a [fraternal society] no longer exists or a family member takes them to court,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, which supports Jewish bereavement committees and chevra kadisha groups nationwide. “People say that’s not where the Jewish community should spend its money, we need to focus on young people. But focusing on young people should include helping them take care of their parents and grandparents."

“In Israel," Katz added, "Jewish cemeteries are funded by the state, but in the United States it’s all donor money.”

Recently, interest in taking care of these old cemeteries has been growing.

In 2008, the first Jewish Cemetery Association of North America was established as an umbrella for efforts to standardize care and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries, active and inactive. Its 12 founding members include individual cemeteries and funeral homes, as well as regional cemetery associations, which have started forming just in the past 25 years.

Jonathan Schachter is on the board of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, which turned its attention to neglected and abandoned Jewish cemeteries in western Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s.

The association, which operates under the umbrella of the Jewish federation, will soon assume responsibility for its 10th such cemetery.

“I take great comfort knowing that these resting places of someone’s relatives are taken care of,” Schachter said, adding that his own mother’s death six months ago “adds another dimension” to his work.

Many places have no regional associations to tend at-risk Jewish cemeteries — it’s up to local people, working alone or in small groups.

Stan Cohen has been taking care of the 100-year-old Brith Sholem cemetery near Trenton, N.J., for the past two years on his own time.

It was in disrepair for decades, he says, but Cohen was moved to take action when he was visiting his grandmother’s grave and noticed an elderly woman with a walker hand a stone to a young boy to place on a grave for her because the path was so overgrown that she could not make her way forward.

Cohen now cuts the grass, clears paths and cleans headstones, so visitors can find their relatives. He paid for tree removal out of his own pocket. He says local synagogues have offered to help, but the last living member of the burial society that owns the cemetery won’t permit it. Cohen is allowed to do minimal upkeep because he has relatives buried there.

“This is a labor of love,” he said.

Helen Affsa doesn’t have any relatives buried in the defunct Jewish cemetery in Douglas, Ariz., whose care and maintenance she now oversees. She’s not even Jewish, but a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Her parents are from Damascus.

So why is Affsa soliciting bids to repair fences and install security lighting in this abandoned Jewish cemetery that contains just 15 or 16 graves?

“I have a great fondness for my Middle Eastern culture, and I have great respect for my immigrant grandparents, who came to this country and made a life for themselves,” she said. “I know that’s true of the Jewish community as well, and I’m honored to be part of this project.”

Those who grew up in a town will get together sometimes to help restore a neglected or at-risk Jewish cemetery.

That’s what happened in Perth Amboy, N.J. Home to a thriving Jewish community for most of the 20th century, it now has few Jews. But those who once lived there have long memories.

Five years ago, Perth Amboy native Dr. Mona Shangold, now living outside Philadelphia, organized the Friends for the Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries to care for three at-risk Jewish cemeteries owned by Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, the town’s struggling Orthodox congregation.

She and her board reached out to former Perth Amboy Jews nationwide. They raised $110,000 for landscape work and enough for year-to-year maintenance, but not for real perpetual care.

That will take a bigger effort, along the lines of JCAM or CAJAC. 

“A cemetery association needs to be formed in each state or region to take care of all the Jewish cemeteries more efficiently than they can do operating individually,” she proposed. “And owners of thriving cemeteries need to step up and help before their own cemeteries are in need.”

Another nascent effort is the Jewish Cemetery Renewal Project of North America, created in 2009 by Harley Felstein, a family service counselor at a cemetery in Washington, D.C., which seeks to advise people trying to restore or maintain at-risk or abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

Felstein has counseled Hamm, Cohen and Affsa, and he encourages those who know of other cemeteries in need to contact him at www.jcrpna.org.

“Look in your own backyard,” he said.

Zinner says Felstein’s initiative is “an important new effort” and an example of the networking that needs to happen, as the good-hearted individuals taking care of these cemeteries on their own can’t do it forever.

“I do care — this is my community — but it’s a financial burden,” Hamm acknowledged of the effort in Eufaula. “I wish we could find someone with family members buried here who would care about it. But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen."

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