Maintaining our burial sites
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Maintaining our burial sites

Mickey Levine talks about what he and the Cemetery Association do, and why he cares

This is a view of the Silk City cemetery. (Cemetery Association)
This is a view of the Silk City cemetery. (Cemetery Association)

Some of life’s truths are inconvenient.

Not only do people need places to live, but once they have died, they have to be buried. 

Cemeteries take up space, and if they are not to revert to wilderness, they have to be maintained.

Communities move. Generations pass. Land becomes valuable. Memories fade.

Cemeteries become overgrown. The dead in them no longer are treated with the dignity that Jewish law demands. They are forgotten.

New Jersey’s history, at least in the 20th century, was about moving from cities into suburbs — part of a pattern forming and reforming across the country. In the 1960s, Jewish communal leaders realized that the cemeteries that held generations of graves were becoming orphaned, as the synagogues, Jewish centers, and other Jewish institutions that had formed them were closing.

That led to the founding of the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which now oversees 17 burial grounds in Bergen and Passaic counties. It’s led by Mickey Levine, whose background and family history combine to make him care passionately about them.

“I was born and bred in Paterson, and my family was intimately involved with Temple Emanuel,” Mr. Levine, who now lives in downtown Manhattan but goes out to north Jersey at least three times a week, even during the pandemic, to check on all the cemeteries. 

He was talking about the Temple Emanuel that moved to Franklin Lakes decades ago but began in Paterson. Emanuel’s great benefactor was Jacob Fabian, who was “the Stanley-Warner of theaters in Paterson,” he said. Jacob Fabian opened the first movie theater in Paterson, and it was a classic movie palace, a place that not only showed wonders on its screen but enclosed its customers in more wonder. The architect who designed Fabian’s theaters, Fred Wentworth, designed Temple Emanuel, Mr. Levine said.

Temple Emanuel was a formal building; visitors did not enter it casually. “On Yom Kippur, all the men would come wearing top hats,” Mr. Levine said.

Mr. Levine’s grandfather, Meyer Levine (Mickey Levine’s official first name also is Meyer, so he is his paternal grandfather’s full namesake), was the president of the synagogue, and “when Jacob Fabian made his donations, a lot of the time he sent them to my grandfather,” Mr. Levine said. 

Temple Emanuel had its own cemetery, outside the city limits. “Jacob Fabian has a mausoleum there,” Mr. Levine said. “The mausoleum doors are copies of the front doors of the temple in Paterson.”

There were, in fact, no cemeteries in Paterson. “They were all outside the city,” Mr. Levine said. “They’re in Saddle Brook, in a section that is known as Passaic Junction. It’s called that because the Passaic Hebrew Benevolent Association bought a whole tract of land there in the 1800s. And then, either at the time or later, they either sold off or donated different parcels to other Jewish organizations.”

The Cemetery Association now owns those cemeteries, along with others. Most are accessible although one “is on a road no one can find,” he said.

There are so many of them because “when immigrants came to this country, they wanted to make sure they had a place to be buried, so they joined an organization for that reason.” Many were synagogues, but others were such groups as the Workman’s Circle. “Some were little more than burial societies. You’d join so you could buy a plot, or two plots. You’d join because you’d know that you’d have someplace to be buried. That was important to immigrants.”

In the 1960s, when a clear-eyed group of Jewish leaders realized that something had to be done to keep up the cemeteries, they issued an invitation to all the local organizations that owned one to join the group. “Only six joined initially,” Mr. Levine said. “There were a lot of different reasons; one of them always was that they felt that they would never go out of business. They wanted their independence.”

In June, the Cemetery Organization took over its 17th cemetery. It had belonged to the Yavneh Academy, which started its life in Paterson, although it long ago moved to Paramus. The cemetery had belonged to an Orthodox synagogue that gave it to the school when it closed; the school, which had little but formal connections to the cemetery, gave it to the association. All the synagogues whose cemeteries are now part of the association have closed except Temple Emanuel, which “turned over their cemetery in the 1990s, because they could not provide perpetual care,” Mr. Levine said.

The cemeteries themselves, on the other hand, still are in business. People still are buried there; plots still are bought and sold. And tensions between different Jewish streams and different understandings of halacha — Jewish law — play out there as they do in other parts of the Jewish world. For now, buyers must be Orthodox or Conservative Jews, Mr. Levine said — in other words, necessarily Jewish by matrilineal descent or conversion — but “we are segmenting a section of one of our cemeteries for use by Jews who are Jewish by patrilineal descent.” And how does the Cemetery Association know who is or is not Jewish? “We ask them, and we are not going to question what they tell us,” Mr. Levine said. 

The last cemetery before Yavneh’s that the association acquired was Silk City. “That was a long time coming, primarily because they had no money and a lot of problems,” Mr. Levine said. “We could not just take it over and dip into our perpetual care fund to cover the expense of repairing the cemetery. Ultimately, though, we were able to do it because we were able to raise enough money from contributors.”

Because this is real life and the cemeteries are part of the real world, money is always a problem.

“The reality is that there are probably three or four cemeteries that we could take over right now, but we are not in a position to do it because of the need for money,” Mr. Levine said. “You can’t just take over a cemetery without money.

“All of our cemeteries are maintained in the same way, whether or not perpetual care was paid for. We cut all the grass, we trim all the bushes, and if a stone falls, we right that stone. When you take over a cemetery, you need money to maintain it.” The association does try to find next of kin, but that can be hard. “When we took over Silk City, we did a lot of looking and a lot of speaking to people and a lot of writing of letters,” Mr. Levine said.

“It took us three years of hard work at Silk City,” he continued. “When we first took it over, there were 40 downed stones, and there were trees growing in the middle of graves. There were tree limbs that kept falling.”

The money that funded the clean-up came from individual donors, and from foundations and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; without those funds, the work could not have been done. Mr. Levine is grateful to all of them.

That help is even more necessary because families do not have a legal responsibility to maintain graves. “But the fact of the matter is that we as a community have the responsibility,” Mr. Levine said. “It is a mitzvah to take care of the dead. It is ingrained in our culture and in our history. We have a responsibility to take care of the generations that came before us.

“There is a moral responsibility on the part of everybody. It’s not solely on the next of kin.”

That’s a moral truth, but also a pragmatic one. As he has learned, Mr. Levine said, “if you are taking care of your parents’ grave and you fall into financial difficulties, the first thing you’ll stop taking care of is the grave.

“The chances of grandchildren taking care of their grandparents’ grave drops off probably by 60 percent. In a lot of cases, they might never even have known their grandparents. And they might not be around. They might have moved away. And the chances of great grandchildren taking care of a grave falls to probably 10 percent. If you’re lucky.

“We’re a mobile society. When everyone lived in Paterson or its surroundings, there was a community. You went to the cemetery all the time. You knew to do that. But now, with so many people not in the area, that’s just not doable.”

Mr. Levine takes his own responsibilities very seriously. “I literally walk them to make sure they’re in decent shape,” he said. “If there is a stone down, I see it. We’re devising a plan to take care of deferred maintenance on our cemeteries. And there are 50 unmarked graves; we know who’s buried in them, but for whatever reason the families didn’t mark them. In the next 18 months, all of them will be marked. 

“Over the next 18 months we will remove all the dead and dying trees. We will not replant them. There’s no reason to.”

Why? At least in part, because of climate change, Mr. Levine said. “It’s caused a real problem because none of our cemeteries have running water.” It’s far cheaper, easier, and more sustainable to use grass. “The maintenance costs of shrubs and bushes are very high. It’s much easier to maintain a cemetery with a lawn mower and a weed whacker. You won’t find any plants other than grass in a new cemetery.

“It’s very important that cemeteries are maintained. Small bushes grow to be very big bushes. The families are not around to maintain them, or even to see them.

“You want to make the cemetery look good; you don’t have to make a grave look good by having a planting on it. That is not reality. And over time plantings die, and that means that someone who takes over my job eventually is going to walk in and see dead plants.”

And then there is the wildlife. “We have deer in our cemeteries. Deer eat. We can’t replace all the plants that deer eat. Sometimes I walk into a cemetery and the deer look at me and say, ‘Why are you here, bothering me?’

“And these deer? They’re not necessarily small deer.”

Why does he do this work? His involvement began with his third-generation membership at Temple Emanuel, Mr. Levine said. He agreed to be on Cemetery Association board, “and for a while, every three weeks I’d go in and sign checks.” But then the executive director fell ill, and Mr. Levine covered for him for what was supposed to be three weeks — and that was years ago. He does it because he visits his families’ graves. But beyond even that, “I do it because we have a responsibility to take care of the generations that came before us,” he said.

“I take that responsibility very seriously. We can’t just think that we bury someone and that’s where our responsibility ends. That is just not the case.” 

Instead, Mr. Levine is performing chesed shel emet, the mitzvah that someone does while knowing that it never can be repaid. He takes care of the dead and of the places where their bodies are put to rest, because someone has to, and history and fate have made that someone Mickey Levine.

To donate to the Cemetery Association, go to www.jfnnj.org/donate and write “Cemetery Association” in the memo box in the section called “Additional Details.”

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