|Until at least the 1990s, these broken gravestones were scattered throughout the small cemetery in Centerville.|
What do you do when all the people who can answer your questions died long ago – and then, when you search for relevant documents, you find that most have disappeared or are moldering away in a damp cellar?
What happens is that you end up with partial answers – many of them mere speculation – and with more questions than when you started.
In 1847, B’nai Jeshurun, a small congregation of Orthodox German Jews in Paterson, acquired land for a cemetery in the Centerville section of Acquackanock Township, now modern-day Clifton. According to an article by George Holmsey in the Herald-News in 1967, the plot was “nestled between several backyards of homes off Broad Street, overlooking the New York skyline.”
The fledgling shul – containing only a handful of families – bought the property from Joseph V. Ashman, a doctor from New York City, for $50. The oldest organized Jewish cemetery in the state, today Centerville lies hidden away, virtually inaccessible, and scarcely remembered.
What do we know? Not a lot
In 1911, the 50′ x 100′ cemetery – which saw its last burial in 1894 – was fenced in to deter vandalism. While we don’t know exactly how many people were interred there, Mark S. Auerbach – former historian and archivist of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey and currently Passaic City historian – maintains that based on the size of the plot, there might have been as many as four dozen burials, although others speculate that the number was considerably smaller. There is no way to tell for sure. Records are sparse, and those gravestones that have weathered the elements have been removed to Mt. Nebo or other cemeteries.
When the first batch of headstones was moved, the bodies underneath them were transferred to Mount Nebo as well. That was not true later, when more stones were moved; then bodies were not moved and reburied along with the stones that had marked their graves.
The cemetery is still owned by the synagogue, which over the years morphed into Barnert Temple, a large Reform congregation in Franklin Lakes. Totally surrounded by private homes, the cemetery’s only point of entry is through a homeowner’s backyard. The public right of way, off View Street, is partially obstructed.
“The cemetery was the first piece of property the congregation purchased,” said Barnert’s rabbi, Elyse Frishman. In fact, she said, B’nai Jeshurun was incorporated solely for the purpose of buying the cemetery. “This was typical of the earliest congregations,” she noted.
Dorothy Starr, Barnert’s archivist, said that whatever records exist from the old synagogue “were in beat-up old cartons” in the basement of the old Barnert building on Derrom Avenue in Paterson. She and another congregant “went to the basement and dug them out and put them in a station wagon,” she said. “I got most into archival sleeves, but a lot has to be organized.” She found nothing relating to the cemetery.
Mr. Auerbach, who has done a good deal of research on the cemetery, noted that the land for the cemetery was purchased by German Jews who came to the country “after the failed 1840s revolutions.” Over the years, as Clifton went from farms to residences, and as housing was needed for veterans returning from World War II and the Korean War, the cemetery became surrounded by tract homes.
Letting it go
She came to Barnert in 1995, Rabbi Frishman said, and “within a year or so I went over to the cemetery to try to see what condition it was in. We found it landlocked.” There was no easy way to get in or out.
“Then, and then several times after that, we went through it to clean up the garbage” tossed in by locals, she continued. “There were no defined gravesites anymore. Stones had broken and were scattered. And there were no records; it was so long ago.”
In 1887, B’nai Jeshurun bought a cemetery site in Totowa – Mt. Nebo – for $200. Nathan Barnert, among others, later was buried there. In the mid-1990s, a group of synagogue volunteers took some of the gravestones from Centerville, some of which were illegible, “and brought them to the current cemetery to have them in a place of reverence,” Rabbi Frishman said.
Ultimately, because they had very limited access to the cemetery and they did not know who was buried there or where the graves were located, “we made a decision to allow it to return to its natural state, though periodically members of the cemetery committee and a landscaper in the congregation have tried to clean it up,” she said
is far from unique
In 2013, the Times of Israel ran a JTA report by Julie Wiener noting that “countless Jewish cemeteries across the country [are] in varying states of disrepair. Some 40 to 50 of them are in the New York area alone.”
Take for example, Congregation Shaare Tzedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, founder of the Bayside Cemetery in Queens. The cemetery is in total disrepair. While the descendants of those buried there are outraged, it would cost the synagogue a tremendous amount of money to maintain the property.
“There are a plethora of reasons for Jewish cemeteries’ troubles,” Ms. Weiner wrote. “Many are owned by synagogues, associations, or burial societies that no longer exist or are on their last legs. Once a cemetery stops bringing in revenues – i.e., fresh graves – the operating budget dries up unless sufficient money has been set aside for the long term. At Bayside, annual cemetery upkeep costs $90,000.”
The issue is nothing if not complex, and often controversial. But for some, it is also deeply personal.
to the family tree
Marcia Minuskin of Fair Lawn, who has joined her cousin Don Kalish in researching their family history, believes that at least one of her ancestors is buried at Centerville. Thanks to the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey, a ledger book from B’nai Jeshurun was uncovered that seems to bear out her belief.
Granted, the handwriting in the ledger, the second part of B’nai Jeshurun’s cash disbursement book (the first part, 1847-1876, is missing), is flowery and often illegible – and sometimes the English melds into Yiddish – but Ms. Minuskin has reason to believe that the $3 burial of “Mrs. Le” in April 1886 was that of her great-grandmother’s sister, Bertha Levine. Ms. Levine’s death certificate, which Mr. Kalish now holds, cites Centerville as her resting place.
And yes, $3 is not a typo. Nor is the $1 charge for burying children. According to the ledger, many young people found their way into Centerville as well.
Bertha Levine died in April 1886 at the age of 31. As was often the case at the time, her husband, Morris Levine, then married her sister, Pauline. Morris and Pauline are buried in Mt. Nebo. Mr. Kalish said that a fallen stone lies next to their graves. He wonders if it might be the gravestone of Bertha Levine, moved there from Centerville.
But Mr. Kalish and Ms. Minuskin are still looking for other family members, especially for Flora Bibo, Mr. Kalish’s great-great-great grandmother, who was listed in the 1880 Paterson census although not in the one for 1890.
“I found an 1878 newspaper [in the Paterson library],” Mr. Kalish said. “Morris Kalish’s store had burned down, and it tells how his invalid grandmother was saved by firefighters. So she was still there.”
Ms. Minuskin did her best to comb through the old synagogue ledger provided by Jerry Nathans of JHSNJ. In an unexpected “aha” moment, she discovered that her great-grandfather, Morris Levine, was one of the men certifying the books of the synagogue treasurer, beginning in 1881. His signature appeared throughout the ledger.
Among the burials she found recorded (and there were others, but names were illegible or unlisted) were that of Capt. Joseph B.’s wife (1876); Selling’s child (1876); M. Cohen’s child (1878); Brown (1882); Loewy (1882); R. Cohen’s Child (1883); Mrs. Roth (1883); Loewenthal’s child (1883); Ely Primer (1883), spelling unclear; Katz’s child (1884); Hillthal’s child (1884), spelling unclear; Levy (1885); Cohen (1883); Mrs. Le (1886); Mrs. Lederer (1886); Simon (1887), spelling unclear; and Mrs. A. Simon (1889).
Not found in the ledger, but reported in the 1967 Herald-News article, were stones reading “Post- Wife of Mac Rosenstien. Died March 19, 1876. Age 42 years;” and “In Memory of Rosa Goldstein. Died September, 1873. Aged 68 years.”
(Also noteworthy in the journal were regular payments “to a poor man,” generally ranging from fifty cents to one dollar. Water taxes ran to $3, gas to $3.57, and synagogue cleaning to $4. A High Holiday ad in the Hebrew Standard cost $1.50.)
More questions than answers
The history of cemeteries, like that of families, yields fascinating data. Mr. Nathans recalls hearing that local residents probably melted down Centerville cemetery’s metal gates to help with the war effort, although he doesn’t remember for which world war.
Bea Okker, longtime caretaker of the Mount Nebo Cemetery, who now lives in Florida, recalls that she and her husband, Walt, took over the job of cemetery maintenance from her father-in-law, Stephen Okker, and her mother-in-law, Georgette. Not only did the Okkers live on the property, but Bea’s husband and in-laws are buried there. Ms. Okker remained there until 2006.
Ms. Okker told Ms. Minuskin that while she was caretaker, she worked with the Barnert cemetery committee, then led by Herb Teisch and Mike Becker. According to Ms. Minuskin, Ms. Okker remembered going with congregants Alvin Sauer and Herb Teisch to clean up Centerville, but, she recalls, she met with resistance from one or more of its neighbors.
But cemetery committee chair Len Diamond has had a different experience, noting that neighbors generally have been very accommodating in allowing volunteers to go through their yards.
Ms. Okker recalled that a number of stones were removed from Centerville and put into her garage at the Mt. Nebo residence. Barnert planned to build a memorial at Mt. Nebo to display the stones from Centerville. But, she said, when she left in 2006, the stones still were in her garage. Mr. Diamond confirmed that the stones are still there.
“There are pieces of about six headstones,” he said, adding that the stones were moved before he joined the committee. “They’re not all intact.” But, he said, he is sure that there are still a few headstones remaining in Centerville. “Our intent is to get that vegetation under control and bring the headstones back.”
He also pointed out that the State of New Jersey maintains an archive of old death certificates. Once archivists there are given a specific name, they may be able to provide a certificate.
Mr. Diamond said he and a group of volunteers “had hacked down the weeds at Centerville pretty well” at one time, but that – as with many volunteer groups – “we ran out of steam again. Our intention is to find the money and restore the cemetery,” he said. But he notes that the easement to the cemetery goes through someone’s yard and questioned how the town had allowed that to happen.
So what to do? In some communities, federations have taken on the upkeep of derelict cemeteries; in others, cemetery collectives have been formed to see to the maintenance of local cemeteries. In others, the cemeteries simply have disappeared.
Whatever becomes of Centerville, the memory of those within its walls should be honored. May they rest in peace.