In ancient times, JTS scholar David Kraemer recounts in his book “The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism,” Jews buried their dead in burial caves. They would visit the corpses and bring food and perfumes with them, for reasons that are not clear today. Eventually, the body decayed and the bones were removed to more distant reaches of the cave and thus gathered to their ancestors.
Nowadays, we bury bodies in the ground. They decompose invisibly; we may visit the graves, and we may leave stones on their monuments. But each person has his or her own resting space.
Nowadays, also, we are not rooted in one place like the Jews of ancient Judea. Around the world, places that once boasted thriving Jewish communities now are abandoned; the graveyards molder, lacking anyone to care for them.
This is true even here in New Jersey. There are no longer Jews in the heart of Newark, where many of the community’s parents and grandparents are buried. And in fact it’s not considered safe to visit those cemeteries.
One day a year, however, the gates of the Jewish cemeteries are opened, the Essex County Sheriff’s Department stands guard, and the Jewish communities of New Jersey are invited in to pay their respects to their ancestors. Visiting a cemetery is a particular custom during the Ten Days of Repentance — few things focus the mind for repentance and stocktaking like a visit to a grave — and this year, the annual Newark cemetery visiting day is Sunday, September 27.
“It’s really the one day when people are invited and encouraged to go,” Tamar Warburg of Teaneck said. Ms. Warburg is general counsel for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. In that capacity, she oversees the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation, which was created by a court overseeing the assets of defunct Jewish burial societies. Those funds still are being used to maintain the five Jewish cemeteries of Newark, and some of the results will be visible to the visitors on Sunday.
Two years ago, Ms. Warburg said, the Jewish Federation — which controls the foundation — allocated $60,000 to redo the fencing around the cemeteries.
“It had fallen into disrepair,” Ms. Warburg said. “Homeless people were sleeping there. The new fencing around the Grove Street cemetery has been effective in keeping people out.”
The four other Newark Jewish cemeteries the foundation oversees are the Talmud Torah, Union Field, and B’nai Abraham cemeteries — all adjacent to Grove Street — and Beth El Memorial Park on McClellan Street. The latter still is active. The others are used for only a few burials a year; they function as a potters field for local Jews who have no family who can bury them.
Last week, the federation board allocated an additional $120,000 to maintain the cemeteries.
“There are about 60,000 graves in the cemeteries,” Ms. Warburg said. “500 to 600 headstones have fallen down. This allocation will get those headstones pulled up.
“Many had fallen face forward, and the names and information wasn’t available. Some have been down for years, and their information wasn’t recorded.
“Fixing up at an at risk cemetery is not as exciting as covid response, but these are people who can’t advocate for themselves anymore.
Last year, more than 100 people visited the cemeteries. This year, visitors are asked to make reservations at jfedgmw.org/visiting-day. They will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing.