I have never had to think much about cemeteries.
When my dad died, I knew from previous conversations with him that he and my mom had plots next to my grandparents on the Jersey Shore. I used Google to help me remember the name of the Agudath Achim Congregation in Bradley Beach. After a call to the funeral home with this information, my work was done.
When I visit the cemetery, I am surprised at how well kept everything is. My grandparents and parents had purchased the perpetual care plan. I have no idea what that might have cost back in the 1960s. But it certainly gives my sisters and I peace of mind today.
Two other recent experiences made me think about cemeteries again. We recently visited our son in Israel and stayed with cousins in Tel Aviv. A few years ago, my cousin Paul and his son Sivan visited Ostropolia in the Ukraine, where our family comes from. He gave me a zip drive of picture he had taken. Some of which were of Jewish graves in the Ostropolia cemetery.
I guess perpetual care was not an option in the 1800s!
This past week, I went to Shiva at my friend’s home. His mom had passed away. My rabbi, Steve Kushner, is the chair of the Cemetery Committee for the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ. He shared with me a photograph he took of a row of “Katowitz” gravestones from an old Jewish cemetery in Newark, NJ. While my mom grew up in Newark, the Katowitz side of my family hails from Cleveland.
In my work with synagogues, there has been occasion when I have asked about existing endowment funds that the leadership has been sure to note that they have a cemetery fund. This takes care of the on-going upkeep of their cemetery. Some synagogues have invested the principal in their cemetery fund along with their endowment funds. This certainly makes a lot of sense. Over time, as more congregants pass away, such costs will certainly go up.
The picture referenced above from the cemetery in Ostropolia could be in New York, New Jersey, or anywhere in the United States. Rabbi Kushner’s work with the Newark cemeteries is going on in many cities. Check out this article in the New York Jewish Week.
Last year I did some work with the leadership of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. One of the highlights of my visit was the tour of the cemetery, with graves of several congregants who fought in the Civil War.
The leadership of this synagogue took the responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery very seriously. And they knew that they had to establish an endowment fund of significance to both maintain this historical treasure as well as to meet the cemetery needs of congregants in the future.
Take a look at the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. This is another example of the organized Jewish community’s approach and obligation to maintaining Jewish cemeteries.
There are several synagogues, particularly in the South, whose membership has been dwindling over the years. They have been blessed with the assistance and guidance from the Jewish Legacy Project. What to do about the ongoing maintenance of cemeteries of past congregants as well as loved ones is an important issue for synagogues whose future as a sacred community is a concern.
In the coming weeks, it will be important for me to ask the leadership of Agudath Achim Congregation about their future plans for their cemetery.