For his bar mitzvah chesed project, Gidon Katz, an eighth grader at the Windward School in White Plains, recruited 75 family members and friends to help him clean up and repair headstones at Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens. (The controversy over the cemetery’s finances and attempts to clean it up have been chronicled in The Jewish Week.)
The volunteers, who were primarily from his family’s congregation, Temple Israel Center, ranged in age from 4 to 60. Working recently in 90-plus degree weather, the group spent two hours painting railings, pulling weeds, raking the lawn, picking up garbage and cleaning a few dozen headstones.
“I wanted to do a hands-on project and thought of this because I wanted to do something my dad does,” said Katz, in white hat in bottom left photo.
He had once accompanied his father, Gary, a volunteer board member of the Community Association of Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries [CAJAC] in White Plains, on a cleanup at the same cemetery.
The recent effort was coordinated with CAJAC, which coordinates the Jewish community’s preservation of neglected, struggling and abandoned Jewish cemeteries in the New York area. Katz’s cleanup was just one of many that CAJAC spearheads to give deteriorating Jewish cemeteries a measure of dignity and respect. It is now also concentrating on Baron Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island.
“I cleaned about five headstones myself using a mixture of vinegar and water and brushes,” Katz said. “I removed the mold so that I could read the names.”
His mother, Diane, who had joined her son in cleaning headstones, said there was one that stuck out — that of a soldier who was killed in World War I.
“It had his regiment on it,” she said. “This was a meaningful mitzvah of honoring the departed — kavod hamet — and of chesed shel emet — ultimate kindness — for those who no longer have anyone to care for their resting site.”
She noted that Ozone Park cemetery is located in a neighborhood that is no longer Jewish and that it “does not reflect well on the Jewish community when Jewish cemeteries are allowed to deteriorate and left abandoned.”