Friday, May 15, 2015

A New Era for Abandoned Jewish Cemetery

A newspaper columnist phoned me a couple months ago and asked, “Mr. Snyder, just how many abandoned cemeteries are there in the United States?” I felt like saying “Twelve thousand, eight hundred, and thirty-six.” Obviously, no one knows the answer to that question. What I actually said to him is that there are degrees of abandonment, sort of. A cemetery can be unmaintained, yet still have an owner. So it may appear to be abandoned, but in reality, it is not - it is simply unmaintained. How can this happen? Why is this even allowed to happen? There are no simple answers.

May 2015 image of lower portion of cemetery, cleared of weeds

The good news, however, is that yet another (in my fifteen-years’ experience as a cemetery traveler) abandoned cemetery has been reclaimed! The cemetery in question is the 18-acre (by some estimates) abandoned Jewish cemetery in the woods of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia).

You may have read one or both of the blogs I’ve posted about this cemetery, known variously as Mount of Olives, Har Zetim, and Har Hasetim Cemetery. One blog documented my maiden voyage to this "Abandoned Jewish Cemetery in Gladwyne" (as it is also known), "Passover and Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery" (click link to go to that blog). A second blog documented a winter visit, "Graves Beneath the Snow." One of this cemetery's challenges is access - it is surrounded by very expensive private residential properties. In fact, you would never find it unless someone physically showed you where it is.

Brick crypt in Har Hasetim Cemetery

Any information available on the cemetery via the Internet is sparse, and in some cases inaccurate. I must confess that I added to the wealth of misinformation with the title of my first blog on the cemetery, "Passover and Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery." As I mentioned above, although a graveyard may appear unkempt, it does not necessarily mean it has been abandoned. Har Hasetim actually became the property of Gladwyne's Beth David Reformed Congregation in 1999. The most complete history of Har Hasetim has just been published in the Spring 2015 issue of "Chronicles," the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (Vol. 32 - 1). The article, written by Philadelphia's LandHealth Institute member Rachael Griffith and Beth David Executive Director Jill Cooper, is entitled, A New Era for an Abandoned Jewish Cemetery (past issues are available at this link online). 

Back in 1999, the courts ruled that nearby Beth David Reformed Congregation be granted ownership of Har Hasetim, as the cemetery was facing a land development threat. Since its inception in 1895, Har Hasetim changed ownership a few times, and has faced a number of challenges. Since 1999, Beth David has kept the cemetery intact, and has reached the point where a master plan for the property will soon be adopted. The plan is being created with the help of LandHealth Institute. Details of the plan will be made public in the near future. The people directly involved with the care of the cemetery are members of Beth David's "Friends of Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery," a non-profit company (click here to go to the Friends website).

Wineberry thicket photographed in 2014

Keeping the sacred ground intact, maintained, and eventually restored is the main goal of the Friends group. I sat in on a recent meeting of the Friends and was taken by their knowledge and enthusiasm. The group has already had several cleanup days this spring, with a major goal of removing the wineberry (a relative of the raspberry) vines that tangle the grave sites at the lower end of the grounds. They've done wonderful work. Much of the thorny wineberry plants have been uprooted and removed. This allows access to individual graves. Another cleanup day is scheduled for this Sunday, May 17, 2015. Their volunteer efforts have certainly been evident. I visited Har Hasetim at the beginning of May, 2015, and was struck by how walkable the grounds are. Vines and weeds had been cut back and the walking trails are clear of woodland debris.  

Since forming in 2012, the
Friends of Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has done much genealogical research (a list of a thousand names from the burial records appears on their new website). Working to publish these names as well as publishing the concise and accurate history of the cemetery (Spring 2015 "Chronicles" article) satisfies the curiosity of many and fills in some of the gaps of Jewish history in the Greater Philadelphia region. I, for one, did not know that Philadelphia had many Jewish burial associations, which owned plots at Har Hasetim for the purpose of providing "poor Jewish immigrants with a proper burial according to Jewish law" (1). This explains all of the pieces of rusting iron fencing throughout the property. Also shocking are the documented attempts by land developers over the years to build on the cemetery grounds. In 1912, when Har Hasetim had fallen on hard financial times, a Narberth, PA, contractor purchased a majority of the land at sheriff's sale and disinterred an estimated half of the bodies before he was stopped.

Har Hasetim Cemetery currently has clear paths on which to walk its grounds (you can see the tree branches in the photos above and below, which bound the walking path). This is just the beginning. The future of Har Hasetim, "its continued survival and success," as Griffith and Cooper put it in the Chronicles article (1), "is in the hands of those who care about it. Themes of survival emerge from many parts of the cemetery's story. [It's] existence has been tenuous since its establishment, but there have always been people who cared enough to save it from obliteration." The Friends, along with the LandHealth Institute, are developing a master plan to ensure this will continue.

So if you have wondered about this formerly abandoned cemetery, tucked in the woods, totally off the beaten path – as I had please consider stopping by for at least a tour this coming Sunday. The Friends group welcomes all volunteers and would be happy to show you around. If you’d like to help clear some weeds, the formal invitation from the Beth David Reform Congregation is reprinted below:

We Need Your Help!

Sunday, May 17th

Calling All Gardeners and Horticulturists

Tucked among the homes and estates of Gladwyne is a gem of an historic cemetery, as well as a hidden haven for nature, the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery. Beth David Reform Congregation of Gladwyne has been tasked to maintain it, and the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has plans to restore it. This Sunday, May 17th, we will be cleaning up the cemetery by removing the dead wood, overgrown weeds, and invasive plants. Meet at Beth David at 12:30pm, 1130 Vaughan Lane, Gladwyne PA 19035 (proceed to the very end of the lane). Wear appropriate clothing including stable footwear, jeans, and work or gardening gloves. Bring hand tools for weeding and clearing such as rakes and clippers. Additional tools will be available for those who need them.

Questions? contact Jill Cooper, Executive Director,, 610-896-7485 x104

1. Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, Vol. 32 - 1, Spring 2015 (