October 17, 2018

Philanthropist donates $250,000 to Mount Zion cemetery repair

Shlomo Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, has donated $250,000 to restore the badly vandalized Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles. In addition, two other donors, real estate developer Izek Shomof and businessman Adi McAbian, each donated $25,000, and another real estate developer, Michael Fallas, gave $10,000, making possible some major initial repairs to the site, which has been damaged by intruders in recent years, including knocking over gravestones. The century-old cemetery is the gravesite for about 7,000 Jews.

Following these gifts and a site visit on May 30 by key community leaders, the first stage of the crumbling cemetery’s restoration is expected to begin in June.

Articles in the Jewish Journal and Los Angeles Times have raised awareness about the issue in recent weeks. Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is leading the effort to restore the cemetery. 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles assumed responsibility for Mount Zion Cemetery in 1969 after its original owner, Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth, was no longer able to maintain it. In the past decade, Federation has provided annual support of about $25,000.

Rechnitz also made news in recent weeks when he purchased the beleaguered Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market after it was shuttered following a scandal about its former owner’s mishandling of kosher meats. Rechnitz visited Mount Zion Cemetery in late May for the first time after hearing from a concerned community member about the situation there. Rechnitz’s grandfather, Henry Rechnitz, is buried in the adjacent Agudas Achim Cemetery, just a few feet from Mount Zion. Rechnitz told the Journal that after viewing some of the destruction at the cemetery, he told Greenwald that he could not see any more and that he was ready to help.

“The situation there is nothing short of deplorable,” Rechnitz said in an interview. “We live in a city that features and showcases so many beautiful, lavish, prestigious homes, and when it comes to our dead we are centuries behind Europe.” He was referring to extensive efforts in Europe to restore and maintain Jewish cemeteries, many of which were desecrated during the Holocaust.

The damage at Mount Zion is so severe, Rechnitz said, that he took pictures to show to others whom he thinks may not believe that this could happen in a city like Los Angeles.

“When I looked at headstones being smashed and graffiti and bullet holes, and a lot of spaces where you could literally see into the grave, it was scary.”

On May 30, a group of rabbis and other Jewish community leaders visited the cemetery, marking a significant turning point in the restoration effort. Among those present were Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City; Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Synagogue; Rabbi Boruch Sufrin of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy; David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal; Rabbi Greenwald and others.

In early May, Sanderson and Federation Chief Operating and Financial Officer Ivan Wolkind said that Federation — which is the custodian of the property but does not own it — expressed concern that repair work should not start before enough money is raised to support the full restoration, out of concern that it might not be completed.  

Greenwald wants repair to begin immediately on the hundreds of damaged headstones, graves and ledgers, and to proceed as more donations come in — row by row, section by section. This, he told the group of visitors, is what consulted contractors recommended.

“All the monument companies said that they would have to do it area by area,” Greenwald told the group. “No one can put yellow tape around the entire cemetery and say, ‘OK — construction site.’ ”

Although there is still no agreement on when repairing the graves and headstones should begin, Greenwald and Sanderson both agree that the first work to be done will be to repair and secure the site’s perimeter fencing. That work, they hope, can begin in the coming weeks.

Currently, the fence surrounding the seven-acre cemetery is not high enough in some places to keep out intruders; in other areas, it is missing barbed wire,or, worst of all, is pierced with large holes. Greenwald expects the fence repair to cost anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000.

Local rabbis in attendance on May 30 all agreed that securing the perimeter is the most urgent priority, and that with $300,000 in the bank, work on this should begin as soon as possible. 

Rabbi Topp of Beth Jacob weighed in during the meeting, saying that the effort to protect the dignity of those resting at Mount Zion is a chesed shel emet, a true act of kindness, because those receiving the kindness cannot possibly return the favor. “Giving dignity to the deceased,” Topp said, “is something of the highest priority.”  

The sense of unity generated on May 30 and the monetary commitment by major figures to get the repair work started is, in all likelihood, largely the result of Rechnitz’s donation to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, the group led by Greenwald that is organizing the effort. 

Rechnitz’s gift, Sanderson told the Journal, “is potentially a game changer.” A condition of the $250,000 donation is that repair work begin immediately, Rechnitz said. 

In the past, Sanderson said during a recent interview, efforts to restore the cemetery have briefly popped up in the community, only to fizzle shortly thereafter. 

But with Rechnitz throwing his support behind the effort, and with momentum building among religious and lay leaders to secure the perimeter, maybe this time will be different. 

“It’s a great first step and it’s a first step that hasn’t been taken since we got into this situation,” Sanderson said. 

“It’s no longer just an idea,” Greenwald said.

For at least the past 10 years, Federation has given Home of Peace — a cemetery adjacent to Mount Zion — about $1,000 per month to perform routine maintenance on the cemetery, which opened in 1916. According to Wolkind, Federation spends approximately an additional $13,000 per year on other various projects for the cemetery. 

In an e-mail to the Journal on May 31, Sanderson wrote that Federation is committed to continuing its $25,000 annual allocation to Mount Zion. That amount, though, is not nearly enough to restore or, in the long term, maintain the cemetery, according to projections by Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery. Additional funds will have to come from other sources.

“Hopefully, other people in Los Angeles will get wind of the situation and will feel a responsibility as well,” Rechnitz said. “Now that people do know about it and as it gains publicity, I have full trust in the Jews of Los Angeles that they are all going to want to take part in fixing this problem.”

Based on estimates from several contractors, Greenwald thinks that a five-phase restoration of the cemetery will require about $675,000 and work on the site would take until at least the end of 2015. Maintaining the cemetery once it is restored will cost between $30,000 to $40,000 per year, he said. 

With Rechnitz’s donation and Federation’s existing annual commitment to the cemetery, Mount Zion’s 2015 target completion date appears possible.

Over the next few weeks, Greenwald, Federation and the rabbis who were at the May 30 meeting said they plan to meet with other local Jewish groups, including other Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to try to raise awareness and funds for the restoration project.

“It’s a community dilemma and it should be a community solution,” Greenwald said. 

To donate to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, send checks, payable to “Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery,” to 219 W Seventh St., Suite 206, Los Angeles, CA 90014.