Just weeks ago, the Ohr Knesseth Israel Anshe Sfard Congregation Cemetery looked like a tornado had torn through it.
At least 80 stones, possibly as many as 100, had been toppled over by vandals on Erev Yom Kippur (the date appears to be a coincidence). The stones, which date to the early 1900s, lay flat on the ground, some even disconnected from their bases.
But on this particular day, things were looking up. Mark Hyatt and his crew of four, contracted by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore (JCA), were hard at work repairing the damage at the cemetery on German Hill Road in East Baltimore.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hyatt said. “It was looking disastrous when we got here on Sunday, [Dec. 6].” He and his crew were on their third day of flipping stones over, leveling bases and reattaching headstones using weather-proof industrial-strength epoxy.
“It’s really backbreaking,” he said. And there were two or three more days to go.
The whole job, including fixing the fence so it can be secured overnight, would cost about $10,000, which was being split by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the JCA.
The JCA, an agency of The Associated, maintains 13 of Baltimore’s older cemeteries, most of which were owned by congregations that no longer exist and whose caretakers have passed on. Pooling the assets and perpetual-care trusts of the 13 cemeteries into one fund allows the organization the flexibility to fix disasters such as this one.
About 10 minutes up the road on a hill surrounded by office buildings with a view of I-895 lies a number of cemeteries, including Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery, which is owned and operated by Beth Israel Congregation, now located in Owings Mills.
Baltimore native Scott Gartner, who lives in Lakewood, N.J., visits the cemetery regularly. His parents, Freida and Jack, are buried there, as are grandparents, aunts and uncles. The part of the cemetery where his family lies was purchased by his maternal grandfather and three friends under the Swinicher Woliner Benevolent Association. There’s a memorial that pays tribute to members of families who perished in the Holocaust. This cemetery is important to Gartner.
On a visit in early December for his mother’s yartzeit, the site of leaning headstones and those that had already toppled over brought tears to his eyes.
“That could be Uncle Benny and Aunt Molly,” Gartner said, as he pointed to fallen stones.
The older section of the cemetery further troubles Gartner. There are stones that have fallen on other stones, stones that are sinking and stones that have fallen forward with grass growing around them. Even the road to the older part is in disrepair with cracked concrete and fallen, mangled tree branches covering the surface.
For Beth Israel, this part of the cemetery also is troubling.
“Some of those older parts are well over 100 years old, and so consequently we don’t even know who some of the families are,” said Allen Cohen, co-president of the cemetery.
While he and fellow co-president Marilyn Schloss recently switched caretakers to help beautify the newer part of the cemetery, the older part remains an issue. Without families to contact, funding to repair fallen stones is virtually nonexistent. The perpetual-care trusts, funds bought into by the deceased or their families that grow interest, pay for grass mowing and regular maintenance, but not to repair hundred-year-old cemetery areas that could cost in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I don’t know that we have the money ourselves to do it,” Cohen said. “That’s always a problem.”
Without a pool to draw from like the JCA has, Beth Israel is left only with the hope that The Associated and JCA can help out, although at this moment, the JCA only works in its 13 cemeteries.
“It’s tough. As Jews, it’s a major responsibility,” Cohen said. “I don’t know of too many responsibilities that are more important than that.”
These issues are not unique to Baltimore. All over the country, Jewish communities are grappling with how to maintain their aging cemeteries. While nonprofits such as the JCA exist in some cities, in some cases, cemeteries are unfortunately forgotten and neglected.
“Cemeteries need a pot of money to be able to continue the maintenance going forward, really forever … and that’s the biggest challenge for cemeteries: to have sufficient funds,” said Amy Koplow, membership co-chair of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association in New York. “When people are buried, when people buy graves, Jewish people, they’re expecting that their place of eternal rest will be respectful forever. You don’t pick to get buried in a garbage dump, you pick to get buried in a respectful spot in a well-maintained cemetery.”
The JCA cemeteries
In 1999, the same year Steve Venick became president of the Fram Monument Company, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore was formed under the umbrella of The Associated to be a committee that anyone involved with cemeteries could come to with questions and issues. Its members consisted of the people who ran the cemeteries.
A few years after its formation, the JCA was approached by two cemeteries for much-needed help. It wasn’t the synagogues that approached the JCA — the synagogues that once ran these cemeteries had folded in the 1970s and ’80s. It was aging board members who were responsible for the cemeteries.
“[They asked], ‘What happens when we pass on? Who’s going to maintain and operate our cemeteries?’” Venick said. “So the board met, and we shifted models and we shifted priorities. We needed to get into the position of acquiring and operating cemeteries.”
These days, the board is led by Venick, its president, and includes Sol Levinson & Bros. vice president Matt Levinson and cemetery directors of several local congregations.
Mark Smolarz, COO and CFO at The Associated, refers to the organization as a “catcher’s mitt.” He oversees The Associated’s constituent agencies, such as the JCA.
“Most of the cemeteries are cemeteries of synagogues that have long been dissolved or merged, and therefore the synagogue no longer had the capacity or financial resources to maintain them,” he explained.
The Ohr Knesseth Israel Anshe Sfard Congregation Cemetery ended up in the JCA’s hands through a series of mergers. Ohr Knesseth merged with the old Rogers Avenue shul that merged with Beth Jacob, which merged with Beth Tfiloh, at which point the cemetery was turned over to the JCA.
All but one JCA cemetery are active, and some more than others. Most are on the east side of Baltimore, where the Jewish community once lived.
Matt Levinson, who has been on the board of the JCA for years, said Baltimore is lucky to have the JCA.
“If it wasn’t for the Jewish Cemetery Association, there’d be a much bigger issue in Baltimore,” he said. “Cemeteries are different than a business. You can’t just close a cemetery; there’s always maintenance and things you have to do.”
Bill Bisesi, caretaker for the JCA cemeteries, said stones falling over is not uncommon. In some cemeteries, like the older part of Beth Israel’s, the rows were laid out close together, and stones were often put on top of graves instead of solid ground. As ground moves over time and graves settle, stones are bound to move, lean and fall.
“It’s a different job to take care of an old cemetery than it is to take care of your new, modern cemeteries,” he said. “There’s just so much more involved and so much other stuff you have to take care of.”
In addition to funding issues and trouble tracking down families, old cemeteries don’t have the grave liners or vaults that many modern-day cemeteries require to help keep stones in place. Older stones, many of which are made of marble, have degraded over time, making it hard to read the names on the markers.
“Monuments fall in older cemeteries because the ground continues to settle and foundations crack and foundations sink, and all of this comes under the umbrella of maintenance,” Koplow said. “And very easily, a cemetery can start to look overgrown and abandoned if even in one season that grass isn’t cut.”
While major catastrophes are few and far between, the JCA had to spend $20,000 last year at Adas Israel’s cemetery on German Hill Road, when a nearly 400-foot rear retaining wall fell forward, taking the fence on top of it down.
“One part went and it was like a domino,” Venick said. “It was mind boggling how something could collapse like that.”
Luckily, no stones were damaged.
The JCA can put out $20,000 or split the $10,000 repair at Ohr Knesseth with The Associated, because all the perpetual care trusts from the cemeteries it took over have been pooled into one fund that the organization can spend as it sees fit. That flexibility, to spend one cemetery’s money on another, was something for which the organization had to petition the courts.
The JCA doesn’t actively seek out cemeteries, but when caretakers approach the JCA, the board meets to decide if it fits into its mission.
Gartner, who has been in touch with Venick and Smolarz about his concerns in Baltimore’s aging cemeteries (his paternal grandfather is buried at Ohr Knesseth), wants to see the group become more proactive.
In detailed letters to Associated officials, Gartner wrote about how he would like to see a board of rabbis involved in the JCA, regular visits and maintenance at Baltimore’s cemeteries and tighter security and partnerships with organizations such as the police to ensure cemeteries remain sacred. He would also like to see the JCA partner with the wider Jewish community in a superfund that could help all cemeteries and come up with a plan of care for cemeteries when their synagogues’ operations cease.
“If our generation doesn’t take perpetual care responsibly, who will in the next generation and the next generation?” Gartner asked. “Who’s going to care about my parents’ cemetery when I’m gone?”
While it may be a tall order, the JCA is looking into a number of things that can push the organization’s mission forward. There are discussions about enrolling volunteers through Jewish Volunteer Connection to check on cemeteries on a regular basis. Venick said the JCA is also looking into how it might help other cemeteries that it does not run.
“We have to be careful how much we take on. It’s a financial burden, even though it’s the right thing over time,” said Smolarz, who thinks at some point the JCA is going to have 40 to 50 cemeteries. He would love to see a team of volunteers from the JVC come into the fold and is open to the idea of a superfund.
“If there’s a way to pull assets [together] and be administratively more efficient and be economically more efficient to have one entity be the czar over the cemeteries, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
There is also talk of merging the JCA with the United Hebrew Cemetery Corporation of Rosedale, another group of which Venick is president. UHCC is a nonprofit that takes care of about three-quarters of the Jewish cemeteries in Rosedale. Venick said the organization is smaller, taking care of about 22 small cemeteries, with funding about one-tenth of the JCA’s.
Old issues and new trends
Amy Koplow, membership chair at JCANA, the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, said there are organizations similar to Baltimore’s JCA in Boston, Cincinnati and New York, in areas where there are older cemeteries and the Jewish community has moved away. The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts uses a similar model.
“Their business model is to sort of take from the rich and give to the poor. Whatever assets these cemeteries had were put into one pot; that way everybody could be taken care of,” she said.
As executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, the largest in the diaspora, she deals with her own organization’s old cemetery, which was filled up in 1909. The organization’s active cemetery has about 400 burials a year, for which the organization provides funeral services and the burial. And there is a program through which donors can pay for grave markers.
She said New York has a large number of old cemeteries that have fallen into states of neglect. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were hundreds of burial societies formed by groups called landsmanshaftn, which were fraternal organizations for immigrants from the same towns in Europe.
“One way of keeping from feeling like they weren’t lost in this mass of population was to form these societies,” Koplow said. “So there were hundreds of them, if not thousands, and over several generations … the sort of upkeep of the landsmanshaftn cemeteries sort of disappeared.”
At the Hebrew Free Burial Association’s own cemetery, the organization is left up to its own devices to deal with these issues. When stones fall, they place them on the grave or lean them against the grave since the group doesn’t have the funds to reset them, Koplow said.
“It’s a problem in many Jewish communities,” she explained, noting that some of New Jersey’s historical cemeteries in areas where Jews no longer live have suffered similar issues.
In her JCANA capacity, Koplow has seen some new trends emerging in the Jewish cemetery world, “things where there’s no traditional halachic road map,” she said. As the number of interfaith couples grows, some cemeteries have started allowing interfaith burials, even carving out sections for those burials.
Cremation is also on the rise, Koplow said. For some people with children who don’t live near them, cremation is a way for them to be with their family where they are. For some, the lower cost is attractive, and others says they want to take up less space and have a more environmentally friendly death.
Koplow isn’t convinced it’s a good way to go.
“It’s against Jewish law, and secondly, the energy it takes to cremate doesn’t make it a very green process,” she said.
Walter Tegeler, who runs W.S. Tegeler Monument Company in Baltimore, said he sees more interfaith and cremation burials in Reform cemeteries.
“It’s been going on for years, but I think you see more and more of it now than you used to,” he said of cremations. “People aren’t as religious as they used to be.”
At the cemetery of Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox congregation, there are no interfaith or cremation burials allowed. At Conservative congregation Chizuk Amuno’s cemetery, they don’t accept cremations, but do have a section for interfaith families, something the congregation approved a few years ago.
“We have one burial there so far and some purchased lots,” said cemetery director Marsha Yoffe. “It’s not a stampede; I would say there is a need, and we’re addressing it, and I think in the future that’s where things are going. We’re trying to be realistic.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation accepts cremains as well as interfaith burials.
“We don’t mind if a non-Jewish person is buried at our cemetery as long as the internment is officiated by a rabbi and it’s done by Jewish tradition or law,” said Jo Ann Windman, the congregation’s executive director. Non-Jews are buried throughout the cemetery rather than in a separate section.
Windman does see cremations slowly rising in recent years. A couple can buy one lot for both in cases of cremation, and although they pay a premium to use one lot, it does save money in the long run.
“I think it has to do with costs, and the other part of it has to do with the way people feel about taking up less space on the earth,” Windman said.
The rise in cremations may signify a wider trend. Wendy Farley, cemetery coordinator at Beth Tfiloh, doesn’t see young people appreciating the importance of cemeteries the way previous generations did, as the number of attendees at the annual memorial service has dropped in recent years.
“I don’t think a lot of people are going to visit their grandparents anymore. I think visiting a cemetery used to be a much more common thing … and I don’t think it’s happening as much anymore,” she said. “I think honoring the dead is something that needs to be brought to the attention of the younger generation.”
Clearing the WEEDS
Just outside of West Philadelphia in Lower Merion Township lies what was once known as Har Hasetim, a cemetery that had been neglected for more than half a century.
“The cemetery was started back in 1892, and it was really a number of burial societies who were burying people in the cemetery. But because of its location high on a hill, a little difficult to get to, far from public transportation, it became less favored,” said Stephen Anderer.
“Burial associations started to die out, and people become assimilated and associated them with the old world. And as a result, the last burial in that cemetery was in 1945, and after that period it really fell into neglect and disrepair. There were homes built up all around it — nice big expensive homes, so it was really cut off from the active public street.”
It became overgrown and essentially a forest until the land owner tried to sell it to a developer who planned to move the graves and build more luxury homes.
“Once word got around about that, not just members of the Jewish community, but members of the local community were up in arms and thought it was sacrilege and really disrespectful to the people who are buried,” Anderer said. Rabbis spoke out against it as well.
The community won a court case, and the six-acre cemetery was turned over to Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery. Anderer chairs the nonprofit, which was started about four years ago. The organization aims to preserve the cemetery, honor those buried there and educate future generations.
Tasks have included landscape management — weeding, moving fallen trees and pruning old trees that haven’t been touched since the 1940s — repairing cracked and fallen stones and doing research on who is buried there. On a recent weekend, volunteers were out with chainsaws, weed whackers and wood chippers to trim away some of the growth. A local landscaping company even donated some of its time.
Anderer’s goal for 2016 is to make every grave visible and accessible via a trail, a goal that was difficult to meet this year.
“As soon as you clear the weeds, another month and they’re back,” he said. “Seventy years of neglect can seem overwhelming, but we’re really starting to get it under control.”
The organization has done some fundraising as well as public events that re-enact some of the history of the area.
“We want to build memorials and kiosks to tell the story and have seating areas, maybe a small reflecting pond,” Anderer said. “That’s going to cost money.”
Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has also established partnerships, including one with the nearby West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Scout troupes and local synagogues have also helped clean up. A professor at Villanova University has a graduate class doing research on the history of the cemetery and the people buried there.
“We want to tell that story to a new generation and generations to come,” Anderer said. “It’s not just the story of the immigrants who came to this country, but certainly Jewish immigrants, people who were fleeing persecution in the late 1800s and their children. Ultimately, these people were the foundation for the Jewish community of today, people like those who are buried in the cemetery.”