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