Diaspora group wants to revitalize Israel’s Mount of Olives Cemetery
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Diaspora group wants to revitalize Israel’s Mount of Olives Cemetery

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A Council of Young Israel delegation inspects newly desecrated graves in the Mount of Olives Cemetery during an emergency visit to demand action from the Israel government to rehabilitate the world’s oldest Jewish cemetery. From left, Rabbi Chaim Wasserman (formerly of Passaic), Rabbi Sholom Gold, Rabbi Meyer Fendel, Shlomo Mostofsky, and Young Israel of Teaneck President Mark Zomick. Photo by Sasson Tiram

Mark Zomick never did locate the tombstones of his great-great-grandparents on the Mount of Olives. The president of Young Israel of Teaneck toured the ancient Jerusalem cemetery late last month, led by an international committee advocating greater security and upkeep at the ancient site.

Though he did not see the graves of his ancestors David and Gittel Berg, his group – accompanied by two armed guards because of frequent attacks on cemetery visitors – did see evidence of why the committee was formed last spring: smashed and defaced headstones, mounds of garbage, and illegally built Arab homes on land zoned for cemetery use.

“We saw [Arab] kids cutting through to get from school to home. We saw tombstones from as recently as 2006 that were already trashed,” said Zomick. “It’s difficult to watch, and it’s hard to understand how this was allowed to happen.”

Overlooking the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives (Har Hazeitim in Hebrew) has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years. Some of the historic figures interred here are biblical prophets Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi as well as such modern-day Israeli legends as Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, author S.Y. Agnon, and Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Shlomo Goren.

“My parents are buried there, and it always bothered me why the holiest Jewish cemetery in the world wasn’t safe to visit without an escort,” said Avraham Lubinsky of Brooklyn, founding chairman of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim.

Lubinsky assumed the situation was hopeless until he read in May about State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’ charge that despite funds earmarked for the site, “repair work proceeds at a snail’s pace, maintenance standards are inadequate, security is sorely lacking, and vandalism and criminal acts continue unabated.” Last Jerusalem Day, buses carrying mourners were stoned near the cemetery, and four people were sent to the hospital.

“The Lindenstrauss report said the government was supposed to act many times but ignored the situation, and that fired me up to bring the committee into action,” said Lubinsky.

He has brought the issue to the attention of American Jewish leaders, including Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, Orthodox Union President Steve Savitsky, and Steve Mostofsky, president of the National Council of Young Israel. About 1,100 people attended a forum sponsored by the committee at the beginning of November at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. They learned that among the graves most often vandalized are Begin’s and that of the Gerrer rebbe, a prominent chasidic leader.

“Could anyone picture the American president walking into Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day and seeing John F. Kennedy’s grave shattered, and neat rows of heroes’ graves busted into little pieces? All hell would break loose,” said Mostofsky.

Israel’s national military cemetery at Mount Herzl on the west side of Jerusalem is well-manicured and safe. But the Mount of Olives is “disgusting beyond belief,” according to Mostofsky. “It sort of looks like a scene from ‘Godzilla,’ just rubble.”

He acted as tour guide on the recent trip to the cemetery in which Zomick participated with his children Shoshanah and Adam. Jeff Daube, director of the Israel office of the Zionist Organization of America, also went along.

Mostofsky said the group found the wires for the security cameras but no cameras. “It was astounding to see, and I think everybody there was heartbroken.”

Lubinsky has been assured by the Jerusalem Development Authority that it will use the allocated funds to improve the situation. On the JDA’s website, the cemetery rehabilitation project is described as “a result of cooperation between the Ministry of Finance, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Ministry of Tourism” and includes plans for new signposts, an information center, security cameras, formal tours, and regular cleaning and maintenance.

“The committee will have to apply continuous pressure until the government takes care of this,” said Lubinsky.

Zomick would also like to see improved access roads. “It was hard to get there because the traffic is heavy in that area, and Arabs drive up and down the street harassing people, using the cemetery approach to make U-turns,” he said.

“There needs to be a fundamental change in mindset to recognize the ancient Jewish significance of this holy and historic site,” said Mostofsky.

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