Hawthorne is home to old Jewish cemetery

Hawthorne is home to old Jewish cemetery

Some people in Hawthorne have a historical treasure in their backyards but don’t know how it got there. Meet the people of Brockhuizen Lane, a steep road that climbs up a hill straddling the North Haledon border. Not too far up the road lie two ancient cemeteries, the Ahavath Joseph Cemetery and the Holland Cemetery.

A view of Ahavath Joseph Cemetery.

The Ahavath Joseph cemetery is in perfect health, which is remarkable considering it is more than 100 years old. The cemetery was bought by a group of people originally from Slutsk, Lithuania (now Belarus), who moved to Paterson in the 1890s and formed a congregation called Ahavath Joseph on Godwin Street.

"It was customary that once people set up a congregation, they would get land for a cemetery," explains Ruth Brooks, Ahavath Joseph Cemetery chairwoman. "Back then, young children and adults passed away from diphtheria, pneumonia, measles, polio, etc. — things that we have inoculations for today.

In fact, there were clusters of deaths, as evidenced by the gravestones, due to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the diphtheria epidemic of the 19’0s. Many stillborn and very young babies were buried at that time without gravestones. However, the parents knew where they were interred. "But sadly, there are no records now," Brooks says.

The cemeteries are on what used to be Dutch farmland. Though it is not known why the land was bought on the mountain, it is likely the steep terrain was useless to farmers.

The members of Ahavath Joseph were entitled to a gravesite, says Brooks. They would buy the site when the need arose. Originally the cemetery was arranged by rows of men and women. But later families were buried together. Babies and young children were largely buried in the back of the cemetery.

Sadly, says Marty Rittenberg of Wayne, his grandparents were not buried together in this cemetery. It was considered a hex to buy a cemetery plot prematurely, he says.

His grandfather, Abraham Max Rittenberg, left Lithuania in 1883 and came to New York City. There, he met his future wife, Fannie Simmons, who had emigrated from Russia with her mother and siblings. The couple married in 1888 and moved to Paterson.

"They were looking for a better way of life in coming to America, as well as to escape from religious persecution," the younger Rittenberg explains.

His grandparents opened a wholesale candy factory in Paterson. They had eight children; four did not live to adulthood and are buried in the cemetery without gravestones. Abraham Rittenberg, who was the second president of the Ahavath Joseph synagogue, died in 1914 and was buried in the Ahavath Joseph Cemetery.

Others buried there include members of the Spira family, who founded Spira’s Department Store in Paterson in 1898. The gates of the cemetery were donated by Dina Solte Webster, one-time owner of the Junior Shop in Paterson.

The Ahavath Joseph congregation eventually merged with Cong. B’nai Israel in Paterson, adopting the B’nai Israel/Ahavath Joseph name. That aging congregation is getting smaller, and a religious school occupies its building.

"Like many stories of other immigrant city communities, the population moved," says Brooks. "The congregation, because of changes in demographics, is literally dying,"

But the care of the cemetery goes on.

"Anyone that is buried pays for perpetual care at the time of burial," explains Brooks. "We continue to take care of them out of respect — these were real people and they had families and they still deserve the respect others gave to them."

The last burial in the Ahavath Joseph Cemetery was in the 1990s, and few plots remain. The cemetery still draws distant relatives of the people buried there. One neighbor, Hank Ringma, says he notices stones on top of the gravestones every once in a while.

"The stone tells whoever is buried there that someone has come to visit," says Brooks. "It is as if [visitors are] saying, ‘We were here.’"

The graves have several Orthodox Jewish symbols. Two hands with "V" signs indicate the buried individual is a Kohen, from the priestly class. A replica of a candle represents the eternal light. Half a page of a book represents a spouse; the other half of the book was meant for the husband or wife. A tree trunk symbolizes a premature death, or a life cut short.

Some of the descendents of the people buried in the cemetery find it hard to read the gravestones. Much of the writing is in Yiddish rather than Hebrew, which uses fewer symbols and saved space on the stones, says Marty Rittenberg.

The cemetery offers a glimpse into the past and traditions that still live on today. For example, at birth, children are given the Hebrew name at of a family member who has died. Marty Rittenberg’s daughter, Mindy Faye, was able to make family connections when she visited the cemetery. She was named for her great-grandmother, Fannie.

This photograph of the Ahavath Joseph Synagogue appeared in a 1939 local newspaper.

"My daughter was fascinated," says Rittenberg. "She could also see where her great-grandfather and great-great grandmother are buried."

The traditions of the cemetery next to Ahavath Joseph are less clear. It used to be called Holland Cemetery or Vermuden Cemetery, and was used by local Dutch Reformed churches in the 1800s. Today, just a few gravestones remain. Most of the coffins and stones were moved to Fair Lawn Memorial Cemetery on Maple Avenue. Those remaining give a chilling reminder of life two centuries ago. A child only ‘1 months old has a tiny gravestone. Others are entirely in Dutch, with such names as Van Adrianis and Veeneman.

Brockhuizen Lane offers a portal into yesteryear and adds a rich layer of history to Hawthorne. Ahavath Joseph Cemetery is a reminder of the struggles faced by immigrant families and the strength of enduring traditions.

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