Perpetual care
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Perpetual care

Cemetery Association ensures that graves remain tended

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The Cemetery Association takes care of Workmen’s Circle cemetery in Saddle Brook, along with many others. Courtesy David Barrow

What happens to local Jewish cemeteries when the organizations charged with their care go out of business?

Some, at least, have joined the Cemetery Association, founded in the 1950s as the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation.

“We’re only tangentially affiliated with the federation now,” said Mickey Levine, executive vice president of the association, noting that when the nonprofit association was founded, “It was organized by a number of the same individuals who were in leadership positions with the federation.” But, he added, “they had the foresight to ensure that there was a distinct separation between the two.”

His group, said Levine, “takes over and maintains old Jewish cemeteries.” Beginning with some half a dozen sites, it now embraces 13 cemeteries in Totowa, Woodland Park, Saddle Brook, and Elmwood Park.

In addition to performing regular upkeep of these facilities, members respond to emergency situations, such as vandalism.

In 1993, dozens of gravestones were defaced at a cemetery in Passaic Junction. The vandalized section was owned by the Workmen’s Circle, many of whose early members were Polish immigrants. Another Workmen’s Circle cemetery was vandalized in Elmwood Park two years ago. In both cases, the association helped with the clean up, even though it did not own the Passaic Junction cemetery at the time of the incident.

Glen Rock resident Morris Merker, who serves as president of the association and has been with the group for some 25 years, said, “The police were very helpful in finding out who did it. When they brought it to court, the judge made the [perpetrators] responsible for fixing up the monuments that were turned over.”

In general, he said, “We find the courts are very responsive and understanding” when it comes to this kind of desecration.

Merker said he became active in the cemetery association while he was a member of the Odd Fellows fraternal organization.

Although the Odd Fellows – founded in 18th century England to help people in need – is not a Jewish organization, the members of his chapter all were Jews, he said, noting that the leader of his lodge, Sam Friedman, created a cemetery not just for members “but to ensure that regardless of money, there would always be a cemetery available for a Jewish person to have a burial. It moved forward from there,” he said. “As it got larger, we got more and more cemeteries.”

Merker noted that the association is not able to take over every Jewish cemetery that needs help, “though that would be nice.” Rather, he said, cemeteries that want to be part of the group must have some funds available to help with upkeep.

He stressed that the cemetery group does not make a profit. All funds are used for upkeep, he said, and the group always encourages a rabbi to join its board to ensure that the requirements of Jewish law are observed in caring for the gravesites.

Like Merker, who came to the association through another affiliation, all board members formerly belonged to the organizations that merged into the larger association, said Levine, who used to live in Paterson but has moved to New York.

“They joined the association for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “Some were part of it when it started, but some have joined over the years because their organizations no longer really exist. They were going out of business and wanted to ensure that the cemeteries would be maintained.”

Levine came to be active in the organization when Temple Emanuel, which then was in Paterson, joined the association. His father is buried in one of the cemeteries he looks after.

According to Levine, Temple Emanuel transferred its old cemetery not because it was moving out of Paterson but because “it wanted to offer the next of kin the ability to have perpetual care, which it could not ensure on its own.” The synagogue has two cemeteries, one in Saddle Brook and a newer one at Cedar Park in Paramus. The Saddle Brook site is now run by Levine’s association.

Most of the cemeteries now owned by the association were established by Jewish fraternal organizations, such as Workmen’s Circle, and by synagogues.

Facilities maintained by the association include the Nathan & Miriam Barnert Cemetery, Independent Passaic County Club Cemetery, and Independent United Jersey Verein Cemetery, all on McBride Avenue in Woodland Park; A & M White Lodge Cemetery and Stein Joelson Cemetery, near Route 80 in Totowa; the old Temple Emanuel Cemetery, Yanover Lodge, B’nai Shalom Cemetery, Workmen’s Circle Branch 121, Workmen’s Circle Branch 970, and Ozerkower Society Cemetery, all in Passaic Junction, Saddle Brook; Americus Lodge, on Midland Ave. in Saddle Brook; and Workmen’s Circle Branch 13, in Elmwood Park.

“We physically take them over,” Levine said. “We’re responsible for maintaining those cemeteries – cutting the grass, righting stones that are damaged by age or vandalism.”

While the job is not full-time for any of the board members – all of whom are volunteers – maintenance is ongoing.

“There are thousands of graves,” Levine said, “with some going back as far as the early 1900s.”

Funding for cemetery maintenance comes mainly from an endowment account containing the funds that once belonged to member groups, from perpetual care fees, and from contributions.

“We continue to put back the money into our cemeteries,” Levine said. “Four years ago we had to replace a wall on McBride Avenue because it was about to fall. We also had to cover almost $10,000 in expenses to right stones that were overturned on the cemeteries on McBride Avenue right before Father’s Day seven years ago. And every year we are constantly righting stones due to the fact that over time, big stones fall. In all of these cases, we have never approached the next of kin to cover the expense, but cover it ourselves.”

For more information about the cemetery association, call Mickey Levine at 917-699-6057 or e-mail msl11@verizon.net.

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