When Jewish immigrants first came to this golden land, one of the first things they thought about was where they’d be buried. In ways that don’t make emotional sense to those of us who were lucky enough to have been born into stability, and who don’t have to worry about where we’ll be buried and prefer not to have to think about it, those immigrants did worry about it, and they made plans. They formed landsmanshaften and chevrei kadisha, and they bought land for cemeteries. They thought ahead.
But what they didn’t think about was what would happen to the cemeteries when the communities that formed them moved away.
That’s been the experience of many Jewish communities in northern New Jersey. Cemeteries that hold the bodies of many generations of first- and second-generation American Jews eventually were neglected, overgrown, virtually abandoned. Now, local Jewish communities are trying to reclaim these cemeteries, both to honor the people buried there and to understand local history through the stories they told.
Possibly the most dramatic cemetery stories come from Newark, which not only is the state’s largest city but also once was home to its largest Jewish community. The once-thriving, vibrant, Weequahic-centered community trickled out of the city, first into the surrounding suburbs and then eventually farther afield, still retaining strong emotional ties to it, just as other Jewish communities left other cities for literally greener places. But then the riots of 1967 put a violent end to most of the remaining Jews’ dreams of staying put.
Newark has gone through many changes since then. As a result, most of the cemeteries are in neighborhoods that are perceived to be unsafe. People often are not comfortable visiting them.
For the last 33 years, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, whose catchment area includes most of the suburbs to which most of Newark’s Jews moved, and its Jewish Community Foundation, have worked with the Newark police department to host an annual visit to the Newark cemeteries. Given the traditional Jewish custom of visiting family graves during the Ten Days of Repentance, that annual visit (except when disrupted by a pandemic) always is the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year, cemetery visiting day was Sunday, September 12.
Tamar Warburg of Teaneck is the MetroWest federation’s general counsel. “There are about 60,000 graves in these cemeteries,” she said. They have a complicated history. There were a large number of small cemeteries, created by institutions — shuls, benevolent organizations, Workman’s Circle chapters, as well as landsmanshaften — that would merge, change names, or change hands, as changing times and demographics demanded. They are not connected to any of those organizations anymore; there still are a very few burials each year, but in large part they’re no longer used.
There are four cemeteries within a three-block radius on Grove Street, and then there are more on or near McClellan Street. “The oldest grave dates back to 1874,” Ms. Warburg said.
Over the decades, the cemeteries have fallen victim to time and weather. Many of the stones have toppled, some because of vandalism, but more because the earth beneath them weathered storms and the trees around them grew and developed sturdy root systems, and those forces of nature pushed them down.
For years, there wasn’t much time or money to fix them.
But in 1994, the association that still ran Beth El Memorial Park, on McClellan Street, near Newark Liberty International Airport, was offered a deal. “There was extra space in the cemetery,” Ms. Warburg said. “People were not being buried there. And then a park-and-fly facility affiliated with the airport was interested in it.” It wanted to use the cemetery’s vacant land for parking. The deal went through, and “a court had the proceeds of that sale put into a trust, called the Beth El Memorial Foundation. It was about $700,000 and its one mission is to maintain the old Jewish cemeteries in greater Essen County.
“Part of the deal is that they would pay for the maintenance of that cemetery, which is well-maintained. The others are maintained through a couple of sources. The foundation pays for basic annual upkeep, cutting the grass a couple of times a year. But there still were tombstones down, the fencing was down, and there were tons of litter.
“That’s where the federation stepped in in a major way.
“In 2018 it approved an emergency grant to redo the fencing around the Grove Street cemetery, which was really dilapidated. So there’s new fencing up, and it remains locked up during the year.
“And then in September 2020, the federation decided to do a huge mitzvah. It authorized a grant to stand up hundreds of huge headstones.”
How do you stand up stone headstones? Not very easily, it turns out, particularly if they’re in a cemetery as packed with graves as the Newark ones are. Because those cemeteries never were particularly well planned — there were more burials in most of them than their founders had anticipated, so the graves were crammed in tightly — the work had to be done by hand. There’s no room for machinery. And each stone has to be reset carefully; each one has to be put in the ground with thought and deliberation.
Most of the work was done by cemeteries’ management company, Sanford B. Epstein and Sons. “Sandy was devoted to those cemeteries,” Kim Hirsch, the foundation’s executive director, said. Mr. Epstein died in 2014, but his sons, Bennett and Ira, have carried on his work. “Benny and Ira are wonderful. They’re the ones standing up the headstones. They say it will take more than a year and a half.
“Before they could get started picking up stones, they had to get rid of trees,” she continued. “Trees and cemeteries don’t go well together. There was a row of about 35 massive trees, with crazy root systems. It took two and a half to three weeks to take them all down, and it took a lot of care. When it was done, you could see headstones that hadn’t been seen for decades.”
This year, the federation was able to provide the visiting day with data-armed staff who helped find gravesites; they used online resources, starting with JewishGen.org, and following the links.
“I’ve been so happy to be involved in this project, because it is so important to give the deceased the respect they deserve,” Ms. Warburg said. “I have conversations with two people who had found their families’ graves for the first time. It was a joyous moment for them.
“In the cemetery, people felt cared for and acknowledged. This day is so much about the living.
“It’s not just chesed shel emet,” the mitzvah of true giving that can never be repaid “for the dead, but for the living as well.”
Lindsay Norman manages the federation’s Center for Volunteerism. “Year after year, people say they want to help in a cemetery cleanup, but truth be told there hasn’t been very much opportunity to do hands-on work. Jobs like lifting headstones is hard, heavy work, and if you don’t know how to do it, it isn’t safe. It isn’t work for our volunteers.
“But in conversations with colleagues and members of the Jewish Genealogical Society, we have realized that one way to help would be to provide directional signage — and better signage — in the cemeteries. One reason that people can’t find graves is that they seem to be placed almost randomly.
“If you look up a grave in, say, Row 20, that’s fine, but you have no idea where Row 20 is, and no way to find it. So we are trying to bring volunteers out to figure out a way to make better signs.
“Another project we can use volunteers for it to photograph the graves and upload them into a dataset. We can’t do that, though, until we have the signage.”
People come from all over on cemetery visiting day, the three women said. Many come from MetroWest, but they also come from Bergen County, the rest of New Jersey, and surrounding areas. Descendants of Newark’s Jewish community are spread out around the world; “we get calls and emails from people who are living in Toronto, Florida, Israel; you name it, they live there.
“This is the first time I went to the cemeteries, and I was struck by their beauty,” Ms. Hirsh said. “I could not believe the intricacy of the stonework, and some of the little porcelain pictures. And it was so peaceful.”
And there are so many stories there, she added. “I went into one section, a group from Ukraine. It’s so packed with the history of the Jewish community in Newark and also where they came from.” That’s American Jewish history, as it ranges across time and space.
Linda Forgosh, the executive director of the federation-affiliated Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest, and her friend Gail Malmgreen, the director of the Newark Archives Project, went to the cemeteries on visiting day. Like everyone else who was there, Ms. Forgosh started talking about the day by rhapsodizing about the weather. “You couldn’t have asked for a nicer day,” she said.
Then she got down to business. “I was looking for a gravestone that had the name Hugo Herman Schary on it,” she said. Mr. Schary was the father of the playwright, producer, and activist Dore Schary, “and I am super-interested in him,” she said.
“I was thinking wouldn’t it be great if his wife was buried next to him?” she continued. “But he wasn’t, and that’s because Hugo cheated on his wife.” (To be clear, that is far from the only reason why spouses are not buried together, and far from the most common.)
“I didn’t find it. But what did catch both of our eyes was the headstone with the name Tabatchnick.”
“That name is known throughout the state and beyond.”
Tabatchnick’s is the Newark-born, now Somerset-based, more-than-a-century old kosher food company started by Louis Tabatchnick.
“Because we have digitized the newspapers from MetroWest, from before the New Jersey Jewish News, we know that you can discover all the ads from Newark-owned business, and so many of them are Tabatchnick.
Ms. Forgosh was impressed with the federation’s work. “They move in a very positive way,” she said “Just when you think that a thing’s not being taken care of, somebody pops up with a solution.
“This day is a service.”
Phyllis Siegel-Friedman lives in New Brunswick now, and she grew up in Edison, but her parents both were children of Newark. On cemetery visiting day, she, her father, Allen, her brother Jon, and her uncle, Gilbert, went to visit the family graves they knew, and to look for others that they’d never found.
Mr. Siegel’s parents, Philip and Rose Steinlauf Siegel, are buried in the Talmud Torah cemetery, and all four of his grandparents are across the street in Union Field; he has uncles and aunts in both. They all had colorful if not entirely conventionally successful life stories. Like so many Jewish immigrants, his grandfather Jacob Siegel spoke five languages, but was unable to find a foothold in this English-speaking new world — and not for lack of trying. Among many other stories, “he tried his luck at a luncheonette in Bradley Beach, where a lot of Newark Jews used to go on vacation,” Mr. Siegel said. “The summer he was there, it rained every weekend. That did not last.” When eventually he retired, it was as a night watchman. Another grandfather, Max Siegel, was a hatter, at a time when just about everyone wore a hat — but he died in the flu pandemic of 1919.
Mr. Siegel’s mother, who was born in 1902, worked for the Thomas Edison Company, in one its first factories. “But my mother was told, ‘What is a Jewish girl doing working in a factory, burning your fingers?’” So when she had the opportunity to learn how to use business machines, she went for it. She assumed she’d study typing, but instead mastered the comptometer, a pre-computer adding-machine-like device that also could subtract, multiply, and divide. “She could do all of it by touch, and she could do fractions in her head,” her son said.
She worked for Western Electric in Kearny; “after the war, she had the opportunity to study computer technology, but she chose to stay with the old machine.” Her career started to dwindle.
Their families visit Philip and Rose’s graves every year, as well as three of Philip and Rose’s parents, they but they’d never been able to find Dora Siegel’s grave. Until this year. They’d known its general location, but Dora and her husband, Max Siegel, had not been buried next to each other, in their case because the graves were dug chronologically and so life partners were separated. “It was weighing on my mind,” Mr. Siegel said. They’d assumed, correctly, that the stone had fallen down, but they couldn’t identify it. They thought they knew which one it was, “so one year my son and I tried lifting it, but we couldn’t. There was no way we’d been able to do that.”
But the federation staffers were able to find the grave; it had been re-erected. “I was very pleased,” Mr. Steiner said.
Then he remembered that although his grandparents had five children, he had been told once, in passing, about a baby who’d died. “It was in the recesses of my memory,” he said. “And we were looking at the little white gravestones of children, and I remembered. So Phyllis stopped one of the volunteer workers and asked if they had a record of an infant Steinlauf, and they did.
“Fannie Steinlauf. She died in 1901. The year before my mother was born.”
The Steiners don’t know how old Fannie was when she died, and they couldn’t find her grave, but this is a step closer to her, and to honoring her memory.
“Maybe we’ll find her on our next visit,” Mr. Steiner said.