Monday, September 20, 2010

USA: Forgotten Jewish Cemeteries

This blogger revealing forgotten gravestone fragments (ca. 1910) hidden by woods in Syracuse University.

USA: Forgotten Jewish Cemeteries
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Sue Fishkoff of JTA has written an important reminder of the continuing state of neglect and decay of so many Jewish cemeteries in the United States. This is not a new problem, its been recognized for at least twenty years, but the solutions have been slow to develop. A few states like Massachusetts and Texas have innovative, cooperative and successful programs but their example still needs to be adopted nationwide.Some solutions are relatively easy and involve more will and time than big bucks. Much can be done to maintain small cemeteries on an occasional basis by volunteers from congregations and civic groups. Big old cemeteries, however need lots of money, and until living Jews are willing to tax themselves to help care for the dead, this problem will not go away. Some sort of cooperative fee or tax contributed by congregations, cemeteries and funeral homes would go a long way toward funding needed work. Unlike Poland and Ukraine, for example, where the needs far outstrip the resources of the existing Jews, this is not the case in the United States. Here there is no good excuse, just a different list of priorities.

Here is Sue's article. On a positive note she documents several cases where creative and energetic individuals are doing their part - with some success:

Shouldering the burden of forgotten cemeteries
By Sue Fishkoff
September 20, 2010

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.

Read the entire article here.

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