Monday, November 2, 2015

Progress for Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery

All Souls Day is an appropriate day to write about my recent visit to Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, even though All Souls’ is a Christian Holy Day. All Souls’ is when Christians commemorate the faithful departed, and in a way, this is what a group of twenty-five people did recently in this formerly abandoned Jewish cemetery. They showed their respect for the thousand or more of their ancestors who are buried in this formerly neglected cemetery.

On October 25, 2015, we gathered at Beth David Synagogue in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania (Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia), for a tour and lecture by resident experts on the topic of nearby historic Har Hasetim Cemetery (which is being renamed Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery). The Synagogue and its staff were very gracious to all the visitors and the rabbi came through the lobby to say hello. Rachael Griffith of the LandHealth Institute greeted everyone and made introductions. Everyone was invited back after the tour for refreshments and to discuss a variety of topics relevant to the cemetery's revitalization, including headstone restoration, gravestone mapping and database creation, and restoring the cemetery's forest ecology. Har Hasetim, a few hundred feet down Conshohocken State Road from the synagogue, is now owned by Beth David Reform Congregation, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

In the fall, our thoughts often turn to death – days get shorter, leaves turn brown and fall off the trees (at least in the northeastern United States). It is nature’s last gasp before the snow flies. November 1, Día de los Muertos, is the Mexican Day of the Dead, when friends and family are remembered who have died. During my recent trip to Har Hasetim, I thought about how close it was in time to Kol Nidre, that solemn time of remembrance (the end of September) when many Jews visit the graves of their parents. This day in Gladwyne, however, was more of a celebration of the future of this historic landmark, the day of the public unveiling of the master plan for its rejuvenation as a permanent memorial to the Jewish population in Philadelphia.

My fascination with this nineteenth century burial ground began many years before I actually found it. Quite literally, it is in the woods, land-locked by surrounding properties. The only way to get to it is by walking or driving across someone’s private residential property. That’s assuming you knew where it was. For many years, it seemed to be just an urban legend until a friend of a friend showed me the way.

The previous times I’d been here I just bumbled in by myself, not really knowing whose property lines to avoid. Turns out I was trespassing! During the tour, we were led into the cemetery along the “Bridlewild Trail,” an easement right-of-way created back when people rode horses through these parts. Currently, the path leads up someone’s driveway and through their back yard.
So, on this lovely fall day, the entire group of us walked down colorful tree-lined Conshohocken State Road to a stone house (occupied, I might add) that was originally the cemetery caretaker’s house and mortuary. We walked up the driveway and through their back yard, making a right turn at the shed and a left around the woodpile! Beyond, and in the woods, are the remnants of the graveyard’s old brick entrance pillars. (The owner of the property came home as we were leaving about two hours later, and was very cordial. The Friends group had previously contacted him so he knew about the tour.)

Once inside the cemetery, the historian of the Friends, Steve Finkleman, gave a detailed account of the cemetery’s checkered past. Interesting points in time include its creation in 1890, its various changes in ownership, infringements on its land, moving of graves, the Sheriff sale, and how Beth David snatched it from the grasp of real estate developers in the 1980s.
 "I got a call from a neighbor who said, there's a bulldozer at the cemetery and they are going to bulldoze the graves," said Richard Elkman, who created the Committee to Save the Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery. The neighbor "was out there with a shotgun to hold them off." -
In 1999, after a ten-year legal battle, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne was granted legal ownership of Har Hasetim (which means, “Mount of Olives,” by the way) Cemetery. Beth David is currently leading the effort to preserve and transform the burial ground into a memorial site with easier access.

The Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery (established in 2012), which is affiliated with Beth David, “has commissioned a plan to clean up the cemetery and restore the graves and headstones, while preserving the plants and trees that are now the natural habitat.” The master plan was created with the help of Philadelphia’s Land Health Institute.

From the article, "Effort to restore an old Jewish cemetery:
"The group envisions trails and contemplative spaces, and wants to research the histories of those buried at the cemetery. Digital mapping technology may be incorporated so that visitors can pick a gravestone and use a mobile device to discover the background of the person beneath it.
The transformation will cost more than $1 million, according to the group, which is developing a fund-raising plan.
"We want to tell the story of the cemetery," said Stephen Anderer of Wynnewood [President of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery]."It's the story of Jewish immigration at the turn of the century, particularly poor Jewish immigrants. This is a beautiful place to tell that story."
Many of the people interred at Har Hasetim are those who emigrated to America before or during the first Russian pogrom in 1881. Most of the burials (many of whom were children) ended around 1917, when the cemetery fell on hard times. Beth David has access to the burial records, and is planning to put them online at some point. They have been kept by Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby, PA, which owned Har Hasetim for a period of time.

"Cradle" graves to hold plantings
As our group (which included a fellow in a walking boot and crutches!) walked down the hillside path through the old cemetery, past odd-looking cork trees and wineberry shrubs, various people took turns talking about different aspects of the cemetery. Scott Quitel, ecologist and founder of the LandHealth Institute, told the group about the native landscape and its flora and his company’s proposal to plant sustainable, low maintenance trees and flowers in the cemetery. An interesting discussion ensued around “cradle” graves and how these were meant to hold lives plantings. Carol Yaster from West Laurel Hill Cemetery discussed the different types of stone used for the various grave markers, and how some weather better than others.

According to a recent article in The Jewish Exponent, in September 2015, "West Laurel Hill Cemetery [Bala Cynwyd, PA] announced a partnership with the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery (operated by Beth David Synagogue). Over the past year, West Laurel Hill staff has helped with the GPS mapping of graves, volunteered at work days, and most recently presented them with funds to help implement their new master plan, which will restore the historical grounds."

Our unique behind-the-scenes tour of Har Hasetim provided insight into the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery as well as the complex tasks involved in transforming this formerly abandoned site into a woodland memorial park. A reflecting pool is planned for the site, possibly near the bottom of the property shown in this photo.

It was a wonderful experience being in the company of all these enthused, learned people who are so passionate about respect – the respect our ancestors deserve. I also felt good about being here for the first time without trespassing! Details should be worked out soon as to how the public can access the property. If you would like to keep up with the progress of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, visit the cemetery, or help in any way, please visit the website or email them at

Visiting the Cemetery
The Cemetery is located off Greaves Lane, east of Conshohocken State Road in Gladwyne, PA.  Currently, we are open to visitors by appointment.  Email us to schedule an appointment.

How You Can Help 
Come to a regularly scheduled work party.
Attend a special event or tour
Become a member
Contact us to volunteer and tell us about your special skills or interests

Address:  Beth David Reform Congregation, 1130 Vaughan Lane, Gladwyne, PA 19035
Phone: (610) 896-7485, x104

References and Further Reading:
Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery Website
For a brief overview of the history of Har Hasetim Cemetery, please see the article, “Effort to restore an old Jewish cemetery.”
Previous Cemetery Traveler blogs about the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery: