The Cemetery Association of Northern New Jersey was created to undertake a task that most people acknowledge is important, but few want to assume.
The group takes care of the largely abandoned graveyards built and filled by members of Jewish communities that have moved on, leaving their 19th-century urban homes for newer ones in the suburbs in the decades after World War II. There are 18 such cemeteries in Bergen and Passaic counties, filled with the graves of people whose descendants, now generations removed from them, largely know nothing about their lives, much less where they are buried.
Mickey Levine, the Paterson-born descendant of generations of leaders of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, which moved from Paterson to Franklin Lakes, heads the association. He lives in Manhattan now, but he goes to North Jersey to walk through the cemeteries three times a week.
What he sees gives insight into a great many areas of life. There are birds and small mammals; there are the trees whose great roots topple headstones, and there are the weeds that have to be uprooted. There’s a great deal of history and demographics to be gleaned from birth dates and death dates and changing fashions in first names (and sometimes last names) and what sort of information was seen as appropriate for gravestones at which period.
Mr. Levin has learned that there are many veterans of the United States armed forces buried in the 18 cemeteries. That information is engraved on many of the headstones. But those graves should be marked as well by the Jewish War Veterans of the United States, and by American flags, Mr. Levin and the organization’s board decided.
So they’ve gotten markers from the JWV, and flags from Passaic and Bergen counties’ veterans departments. They’ve found about 300 graves holding veterans so far, and their goal is to have all of them marked by Memorial Day.
“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Levin said. “All veterans have given something to our country, and we have to at least signify that we understand and respect that.
“There is at least one veteran of the Spanish-American war buried here, and there are veterans of World Wars I and II. I haven’t seen one yet, but I’ve been told that there are veterans of the Korean war, and so far, I’ve found one who served in the war in Vietnam.”
There are many veterans buried in at least two of the group’s cemeteries — the Stein Joselson and the A&M White Lodge, both in Totowa — Mr. Levine said, and he knows of at least one in all but one of them. That’s Ahavath Joseph in Hawthorne. “But I’m not saying that there aren’t any there,” he said. “I just don’t know of any. Yet.”
Mr. Levine assumes that there are more veterans buried in the cemeteries than the ones he’s found so far. He’s compiled a list “based on what was on the headstone or footstone,” he said. “We know that there have to be more; we’re sure that there are some that weren’t marked.
“So it’s a matter of people coming forward and saying, ‘Yes, my father,’ or ‘Yes, my uncle,’ or ‘Yes, my friend was a veteran.’
“We don’t care how we get the names. And we are not asking for proof. We are taking people’s word for it. Nobody is going to mess with this.”
Also, he said, anyone who knows that a relative or friend or acquaintance was a veteran and is buried in one of the association’s cemeteries need not know where in the cemetery the grave is, or even in which cemetery. “As long as they’re in our database, we’ll know,” he said. “It shows who’s buried where. Just give me the name. If you know the cemetery too, that’s fine. If not, that’s okay too.”
He plans on having “students and other young people put flags in markers” in one of the cemeteries before Memorial Day. “We think it’s a great thing for them to do,” he said. “It’s part of history. This is what Memorial Day is all about.”
The association is undertaking this effort, he said, “because if you’ve served in the military and you pass away, you are entitled to whatever the service has to offer. You served. You need to be honored.”
If you know about a veteran who is buried in one of the 18 cemeteries that the Cemetery Association of North Jersey oversees, email Mickey Levine at email@example.com.
These are the cemeteries that the Cemetery Association of North Jersey oversees:
Elmwood Park (Chabot Lane)
Workmens Circle #13
Hawthorne (Brockhuizen Lane)
Saddle Brook (Midland Avenue)
Saddle Brook (Passaic Junction)
Old Temple Emanuel
Workmens Circle # 121
Workmens Circle # 970
Woodland Park (McBride Avenue)
Independent United Jersey Verein
Nathan & Miriam Barnert
Passaic County Club
Silk City Cemetery
Water Street Shul
Totowa (River Road)
A&M White Lodge Cemetery