Yesterday I had the privilege of wandering around four Jewish cemeteries. It was a perfect spring day: sunny, clear and temperate, with blossoms, flowers and other (blessedly not-too-allergenic) new life everywhere.
My companion for the day was Andy Schultz, executive director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, a ridiculously under-funded group that seeks to repair, rescue and preserve neglected Jewish cemeteries, most notably Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens.
Among his numerous charms, Andy shares my obsession with historic Jewish cemeteries (my editor used to joke that I was on the “dead beat”) and is a fount of wisdom on the topic.
Starting the day at Yonkers’ Sherwood Park Cemetery, we drove through the Bronx to Bayside Cemetery, a place I’ve been writing about for almost a decade. We then crossed the Brooklyn border to the surprisingly picturesque Mount Hope Cemetery (one of New York’s most attractive high schools (aesthetically, not academically) rises up majestically behind it), then continuing on to the enormous Baron Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island.
All of these graveyards, plus myriad others in the greater New York area, are, to some extent, neglected — plagued by fallen and broken headstones, poison ivy, a range of overgrowth and (at least at Bayside and Baron Hirsch) vandalism. Most are victims of shockingly poor planning on the part of cemetery owners and Jewish burial societies, few of which seemed to consider how they would maintain the grounds and plots once all the graves were sold and filled. Also not helping: the overwhelming majority of the burial societies have gone extinct, while many descendants of those buried have assimilated and dispersed geographically. And according to some litigants, Bayside may also be victim of criminally mismanaged funds.
What never ceases to amaze me is that these burial grounds aren’t in remote and now largely Judenrein sections of Ukraine or Poland, but in the largest and most prosperous Jewish metropolitan area in the world. (OK, Israel may be larger, but it’s certainly not more prosperous.) And whenever word gets out about similarly neglected or vandalized cemeteries in said sections of Ukraine or Poland, American Jews are rightly horrified and open their pocketbooks to help.
Sure, most of these cemeteries lie in gritty urban neighborhoods, but they’re hardly crime-ridden or inaccessible, and all are a short drive or subway ride from neighborhoods with vibrant and wealthy Jewish communities. Sherwood Park is a stone’s (but not a gravestone’s, please) throw from Riverdale and New Rochelle; Bayside and Mount Hope cemeteries are not far from the Five Towns of Long Island, Forest Hills, Queens and Midwood, Brooklyn; and Baron Hirsch is just two miles from the heavily Jewish New Springville area (plus, New Jersey suburbs like Edison, Metuchen and West Orange are easily accessible.)
The thing is, upkeep and preservation of Jewish burial grounds, which admittedly lacks the donor appeal of say, overnight camps or Israel trips, doesn’t even have to be considered a burden. And, the money cemeteries require isn’t even that large in the scheme of things. When I asked Andy how much he thought would be necessary to create an endowment that would guarantee permanent maintenance/upkeep of the New York area’s at-risk cemeteries, he estimated between $10-20 million. That’s comparable to the amount a new day school endowment project spearheaded by UJA-Federation of New York (which is also funding CAJAC right now) and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education plans to raise for just one 500-student school over the next 10 years. And it’s just a fraction of what casino magnate and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson donated this year to Newt Gingrich’s failed presidential bid.
Cemeteries are fascinating and often beautiful places, rich in Jewish history and teeming with opportunities for Jewish education (not to mention Jewish tourism). Students can combine grave cleanup and lessons in Jewish death-and-burial traditions with lessons on Jewish genealogy and New York Jewish history. The more artistically inclined can use them as material for creative writing or photography or documentary video-making projects. Old cemeteries are also a great place to study plant and animal life: Bayside, for example, is one of the few locations in New York where wild lizards live. Computer science classes could assist in efforts to digitize burial records and gravestones, while math teachers could have students calculate and graph the median and average life spans of cemetery occupants, or the peak years in which burials occurred.
Other fun cemetery activities: picking wildflowers, collecting interesting Jewish names and — if it’s permissible under Jewish law — making gravestone rubbings.
Excuse the lame puns here, but I’m dying to know why Jewish camps, schools and museums are not clamoring to get involved in this undertaking.
If you're able, check out the attached photo below of Mount Hope Cemetery, which is in much better condition than the other cemeteries I visited.