Sunday, March 12, 2017

Restoring Gladwyne, PA's formerly abandoned Jewish Cemetery

The densely forested Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery
Dragging tarps loaded with dead tree branches up the hill and out of the old graveyard didn’t seem like such a big deal. However, this was definitely work! My new volunteer friend and I took about six loads over a course of two hours before we finished the job – or more realistically, before the job finished us.

Wood cuttings awaiting removal
About thirty of us showed up on this cool Monday morning, MLK Day in January 16, 2017, volunteering our efforts to cleanup an old abandoned graveyard. Why? Respect. Respect for our history, respect for those who came before us. The event was organized and led by the Beth David Congregation, of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. It's synagogue is a little way up Conshocken State Road, walking distance from what is now being called The Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery.

Beth David was recently granted legal ownership of Har Hasetim Burial Ground, this forested gem of Jewish history  (the cemetery had been active from about 1890 to 1945) in the deep woods of Gladwyne, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia). Its past is checkered and colorful, and someone must someday write its full history (portions of it can be read at this link). In the meantime, its decay has been stalled, and in fact, reversed. A considerable effort has been put forth over the past few years by Beth David’s “Friends of Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery,” a community partner of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Volunteers clearing weeds from graves on MLK Day, 2017

About twenty of our MLK Day group were here thanks to “Repair the World,” a volunteer organization that “works to inspire American Jews and their communities to give their time and effort to serve those in need. We aim to make service a defining part of American Jewish life” -

Central area of the property
I’ve written previously on The Cemetery Traveler about this formerly abandoned Jewish graveyard in the woods, and you’re certainly welcome to reread those posts listed at the links at the end. They’re in a chronological order that, well, chronicles my experience with this wonderful chapter of our history. In short, I found it in 2010, after hearing about its fabled existence for five years prior to that. To say that Har Hasetim, or “Mount of Olives” Cemetery is in a secluded location, is to underestimate its inaccessibility.

Har Hasetim is in the woods, surrounded by multi-million dollar private homes, in the Philadelphia suburb of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The obvious question on many peoples’ minds is, “How do I get to it?” Well, you don’t. At least not without an escort, for the time being.
Entrance to the cemetery
Organized tour of Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery in 2015

Currently, if you want to see the property, you need to attend one of Beth David’s tours, which are typically associated with a cleanup event. Typically, people meet at the synagogue (1130 Vaughan Lane, Gladwyne, PA 19035), then walk down the horse trail through the woods to Conshohocken State Road. A few hundred feet down the road, you file up into the driveway of a private home (a right of way to the cemetery that has existed since the surrounding properties were subdivided many years ago - the neighbor has been gracious in recognition of that right of way and is a supporter of the Friends' efforts), through the back yard, past the wood pile, and into the cemetery. A pair of crumbling stone posts flank the entrance to Har Hasetim. There is no automobile access to the property at this point in time.

(Check the Friends’ Facebook and website for scheduled events and get on their mailing list. See link at end.)

Invasive wineberry plants in lower portion of cemetery, winter, 2013

The request on this 2017 MLK Day by the Friends group was to focus on pulling the prickly red wineberry plants from the grave sites. Heavy gloves were distributed. Truth be told, at this point the cemetery looks rather good, the result of many prior cleanup efforts. I made the photo above in the winter of 2013, showing the immense wineberry tangle obscuring the majority of the graves in the lower section of the graveyard. Today, it looks like this, below. Still, there is much work to do. 
Absence of wineberry plants in lower portion of cemetery, winter, 2017

"Ecograss" test patch in upper portion of cemetery
The invasive trees and vines that have grown wild on the property will eventually be taken down. On this MLK Day, there was a tree cutter with a chain saw felling dead trees. In the future, weeds and other invasive growth are expected to be kept in check with “Eco grass,” a low maintenance, drought tolerant, durable mix of lawn grasses. In fact, there are a few test patches near the cemetery’s entrance that had been test planted in the fall of 2016, by the Philadelphia-based non-profit LandHealth Institute (, which is consulting with Beth David on the restoration of the property. If it was green in mid-winter, it does indeed seem to be a hearty variety of grass.

Below you see a photo of the same section from 2014, prior to weed removal and planting of the Eco grass. Its also worth noting that all the rusty sections of old fencing seen throughout the cemetery will remain. Originally, they delineated family plots and organizational plots.
Same section as shown in photo above, but made in 2012.

Log trail through cemetery
Sounds like I've spent quite a bit of time researching this place, doesn’t it? I have, in the past. During previous visits, I’d learned much about the cemetery’s history, and plans for its future from the dedicated members of the Friends of Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery. However, on this MLK Day, all I did was help drag and carry dead branches from the lower graveyard to the upper region so that the wood chipper people can turn them into chips to line the log-bordered path that meanders through the property.

At end of MLK Day, "Repair the World" leader addresses volunteers

After my teammate and I finished clearing the branches, I spent an hour or so pulling weeds and wineberry stalks from graves. I stopped every so often to take a photo of the other volunteers doing the same. It was heartening to see children helping as well. At the end of the day, Neil Sukonik (president of the Friends group) and the leaders of Repair the World addressed the volunteers, thanked them, and ended the event with a prayer.

References and Further Reading:
Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery on Facebook
Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery Website

For a fascinating bird‘s-eye-view of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, click this YouTube link from the Beth David Reform Congregation website:

Ed Snyder's “Cemetery Traveler” blog posts about the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery in chronological order:

Holocaust Remembrance Day, posted April 30, 2016
Graves Beneath the Snow, posted March 9, 2014

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Jewish Cemetery Vandalized in Philadelphia

This has been a busy week for the small (Jewish) Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. You’ve no doubt heard of the desecration - it became national news: 75 to 100 headstones were knocked over sometime Saturday evening, February 25, 2017. This follows on the heels of similar vandalism in Missouri, from February 20, when over 100 headstones were toppled in the Jewish Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in University City, Missouri (see story at this link:

Philadelphia Daily News
To fuel the fear of a “hate wave” spreading across America, about thirty bomb threats were made at the end of February to Jewish schools and community centers in eighteen states (see link). As of this writing, the case has been solved and seems to have been the work of one person, not related to the incident at Mount Carmel Cemetery.
A portion of the damage in Philadelphia's Mount Carmel Cemetery

Bad stuff, any way you look at it. However, I’m not going to jump on the hate crime bandwagon just yet, even though the FBI is investigating the vandalism. Why? Well, for one thing, thirty-three headstones were toppled last month in the Holy Redeemer Catholic Cemetery in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia (see link), less than two miles from Mount Carmel. So it may not be antisemitism, just cowardly aggression toward those who cannot defend themselves – the dead. In both Philadelphia situations, communities have come together to repair the damage.

Volunteer registration at Mt. Carmel coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

I’m still (perhaps naively) thinking it was a small group of drunken kids with beer muscles, at least in Philadelphia. Should the people responsible be caught and punished? Damned right. A $69,000 reward (it increases each day, see link) is being offered through a variety of sources for the apprehension of those responsible. 

Headstone fallen and broken in half
Looking at the situation from a vandal’s perspective, Mount Carmel was, unfortunately, an easy target. And that may simply be the main reason it WAS targeted. If you wanted to topple headstones, Mount Carmel would be a better choice than any of the cemeteries on the other three sides at this intersection (Cedar Hill and North Cedar Hill) of East Cheltenham Avenue and Frankford Avenue in north Philadelphia. At Mount Carmel, you are hidden from the road by the densely-packed headstones, making it easy to do your dirty work without being seen.

Mount Carmel Cemetery also has no road inside it so neither police, nor any other cars, can drive through it. Besides, the gates are left open at night, unlike the other, better cared for and more secure cemeteries. The rear gate opens up onto a parking lot and there is quite a bit of tree cover. These many drawbacks will be remedied, however, through the generosity of many donors - significant improvements will be made to the cemetery going forward. 

Wide open rear gate at Philadelphia's Mount Carmel Cemetery

Throughout this past week, hundreds of people have volunteered their time to help repair the damage done at Mount Carmel Cemetery. 

On March 1, 2017, I visited and spoke with members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who were organizing the volunteer effort. A registration table was set up at the cemetery’s entrance, bottled water and bags for trash, branches, and weed clippings were provided. Dozens of volunteers (all races and religions) spent the day cleaning up debris, raking leaves and dead branches, and marking and cataloging the damaged grave stones. The Federation has been receiving calls from individuals asking if their ancestors’ headstones had been knocked over. They took it upon themselves to gather this information. Someone had placed cut flowers on all the damaged headstones and monuments. People are upset, but have joined together to correct the situation.

Philadelphia Inquirer,

I’ve seen damage in cemeteries, but I was not prepared for this. You can't really grasp the magnitude of the damage through on-the-ground newspaper photos. A hundred headstones does not seem like a lot, but Mount Carmel is not a large property. This may amount to a tenth of all the stones in the cemetery. The swath taken by the vandals is obvious, as you walk the length of the property. Stones are toppled throughout the center portion of the rectangular cemetery (east to west). The aerial photographs published by the newspapers give the best depiction of the extent of the damage. Seeing this atrocity in person is jaw-dropping – cracked stones, large monuments pushed off their pedestals, grave markers of all shapes and sizes knocked over.

From the Philadelphia Police Department
Anyone with information on the suspect(s) involved in this crime, please contact either:

·         Northeast Detective Division – 215-686-3153/3154
·         Philadelphia Police Tip Line – 215-686-TIPS (8477)
·         Tips via email –
·         Citizens Crime Commission – 215-546-TIPS (8477)

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Donation page for Mount Carmel Cemetery:

Preventing Future Damage
There is a clear message being sent to the criminals responsible for the Mount Carmel damage – the greater community will repair the damage and will prevent such damage in the future. Police will patrol the property 24x7 until the criminals are caught. Fencing will be improved.

“… the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council offered to replace the toppled headstones and … the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 98 offered to install additional lighting and security cameras." -

Mount Carmel is apparently an active cemetery, as I was told of a relatively recent burial here, 2015. There is a bit of pre-existing damage (a few fallen headstones), a bit of overgrowth, and some areas where the ground has subsided, causing a handful of grave markers to tilt. Clearly, work needs to be done here, especially if families have paid for “perpetual care.”
Volunteers bagging debris at Mount Carmel Cemetery

The lopsided headstones made me realize that before members of local labor unions are allowed to reset the fallen headstones, someone needs to consult a professional about a safe and secure way of doing that. Even if the stone base of the headstone is level, the headstone should be pinned to its base with steel or fiberglass rebar to prevent future damage. Believe it or not, many extremely heavy granite headstones simply sit on their bases! They are not fastened in any way, which is why people are injured or killed when headstones fall on them! If the base is not level, it needs to be leveled first, as shown in this video:

Pinning a headstone to its base is not an unusual practice, but it does cost more money, which is probably part of the reason it is not always done. Two holes are drilled in the base and the underside of the headstone, ... rebar is used to attach the stone to the base, then the joint is sealed to keep water from seeping into the joint between the stones.

“Blind Pinning is exactly what it implies, pins you do not see once the stone is installed. The concept is very simple. Holes are drilled in both the [headstone] and base at exactly the same locations so they match up when joined. Then metal [or other material] pins are placed in the holes, and usually mortared in place. The basic thinking was that if the monument was knocked or began to lean the pins would prevent a complete failure, and the damage this may cause.”International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association, “HOW TO INSTALL A GRAVESTONE”

References and further reading:

Mount Carmel Cemetery 5722 Frankford Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19135. Phone: 215-535-1530. Fax: 215-535-5192