Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries

Now here’s an odd little story, even by my terms. A friend of mine from West Philly told me about an abandoned Jewish cemetery near her house. It’s only a block away from Philadelphia’s most notorious abandoned cemetery, Mount Moriah. Though I used to live nearby, and have been to Mount Moriah many times, I never knew about this small, back alley graveyard.

So one hot summer afternoon, I followed her directions and found a fenced-in half acre of weeds near 65th Street and Chester Avenue (actual address is 1850 Cemetery Lane). I really couldn’t tell if it was a cemetery, but luckily one of the sides − an old stone wall − was easier to scale than the iron fencing along the other sides. Once on top of the wall, I could see tombstones along the inside of the wall and fencing. I heard a man’s voice say, “Can I help you?”

I looked back to the alley to see one of the neighbors (I presumed). You can’t just say. “Oh, no thanks, I’m fine,” when you’re caught trying to enter someone’s private property. So in some cases, honesty is the best policy. I told him I wanted to see the cemetery, and quickly added “How are you supposed to get into this place?” Always make it seem like you’re entitled to be in there. I had a big DSLR slung over my shoulder and I was dressed in a shirt and tie, so I don’t think I looked like a vandal.

In answer to my question, the man said, “An old guy who lived down the alley used to cut grass in here, but I haven’t seen him around in a couple years.” After a bit more small talk, I just said, “Well, I’m going in to look around, and dropped inside.” He walked off and no one bothered with me while I was there.

Strange little place. The iron fence looked kind of new and I could see a locked gate at the other side. While the weeds were high all over, headstones could be seen along all sides of the fence and wall. The place was small, barely half a city block in size, and had lived-in look despite the new fence. As I walked through the graveyard, a strange thing became apparent – there were no headstones on the majority of the property, just high weeds. The headstones were only located along the perimeter of the grounds. And not only THAT, but they were all set in concrete! And actually set in a little too deep, so that some of the names and dates were obscured. What’s up with THAT?

Headstones sunk into concrete
As the old wall bordered an ally, I was not surprised to see kids’ clothes, balls, and other toys in the graveyard weeds. Probably tossed over the wall by bullies for an unfortunate kid to retrieve. Kind of impossible for a little kid to scale this wall, as it was about eight feet high.

I photographed stones around the walls and fence as I made my way around (dates ranged in age from the 1870s to 1940s), and then came to a newish, professionally-made sign, the kind you see in historic parks! Turns out this place had been left for dead back way back when and brought back to life in 1999. Let’s look at what it says on the sign:

Who would have ever thought such an entity as the “Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries” existed? THIS warrants further investigation, but for now, let’s see what else the sign says:

So the place had been established in 1856 by a Dutch Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel, then taken over by the “Hebrew Mutual Benefit and Benevolent Society of Brotherly Love.” This happened in 1879 when the B’nai Israel congregation disbanded. The Hebrew Mutual maintained the cemetery until the late 1960s when it too disbanded. The cemetery had been left to ruin over the ensuing thirty years. To quote the article, ‘Philadelphia Story − Learning Lessons from Eastern Europe, a Cemetery Emerges From Disarray:’

A cemetery “neglected, vandalized, and filled with trash, listed on the City’s roster of abandoned properties,” … nestled among the almost total disarray are toppled memorial stones, some vandalized, and with no surviving descendants dedicated to their maintenance.

People ask me, “How do cemeteries come to be ‘abandoned?’ Well, this is one way. The idea is so totally foreign to most people.

Stanley Barer - Jewish Leader

My guess as to why the headstones were set in concrete around the perimeter of the grounds is this: after thirty years of vandalism, they had gotten so knocked about that it was just easier to reset them this way. Most likely there were no records available to show where the bodies were buried anyway. The intent may have been to actually reconstruct the area more as a PARK, if you look at this satellite map (compliments of the Mount Moriah Cemetery website). A sidewalk can be plainly seen cutting through the center of the graveyard, though weeds obscured any trace of it when I was there. You can see the white tombstones along the sides, and the wall I climbed at the bottom on the photo.

So in 1999, along came Stanley Barer, the big clean-up and renovation happens, and then what? At least the fencing kept the place safe from further vandalism. According to the guy I met on the way in, someone had been cutting the grass up until a couple years ago. I decided to do some research, especially about this “Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries.” I mean, how great is THAT?! If only such a service would catch on with other religions! (… and non-sectarians as well.)

After some Web searching, I was dismayed to find out that the Association, which was an official Agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, no longer exists. (Its web links have expired and now point to a travel agency, of sorts ( Tangential links and news stories (shown at end of this article) indicate that the Association was initially formed to raise the $270,000 needed to restore B'nai Israel /Hebrew Mutual Cemetery. However, it doesn’t appear that it took on any additional projects. Apparently, the additional $200,000 in endowment funds was enough to keep the place in shape for another decade. Maintenance seems to have stopped a few years ago.

Shortly after my initial visit to B'nai Israel , I decided to stop by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to see I could find out what happened to the Association. The security people in the lobby at 2100 Arch Street in Philadelphia had no listing of such an agency, even though this was its last published address. Stanley Barer, it seems, died in 2010.

I did find out that the 440 actual burials are merely represented by the perimeter headstones. MAYBE there are 100 stones in all. When the Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries assumed ownership in 1999, most of the stones, which were either broken or weathered-to-obscurity, were bulldozed into a pile outside the actual burial area. These can still be seen in the woods near Cemetery Lane, which separates tiny B'nai Israel from the vast expanse of the abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery.

The songwriter Shane MacGowan (of the Irish punk band, the Pogues) might have described B'nai Israel Cemetery as a ‘road apple,’ which he likens to “an apple that falls in the road…bruised and beautiful” (from the book, A Drink with Shane MacGowan).You just walk around this place and you can see it has character just by the feel of it, its inner city location, it’s old carved white marble and granite headstones. The sense of history is intense – where did the descendants of these Civil War and Spanish American War veterans go? Mainly due to persecution, you can almost sense the intense range of emotions in these peoples’ lives. It’s almost as if their graves have had as rough a time as they did (read more about the Dutch Jews who emigrated to Philadelphia).

The story has a relatively happy ending, however. After discussing the condition of the cemetery with my friend, she and her husband (who live near the cemetery), contacted the Jewish Federation and worked out a deal where they would cut all the weeds and keep the grass cut on a regular basis. I stopped by today and was astonished to find it all neatly trimmed like it appeared in the old aerial photograph! Relatives may no longer visit this resting place of their ancestors, but at least it has ceased to become an eyesore and a temptation for vandals.

Related Reading:

Jewish Graveyard Rabbit ("A blog on international Jewish cemeteries, preservation and restoration projects, reading Hebrew tombstones and more").