Restoring Mount Zion Cemetery

The headstone of Isabel Janken’s father, Henry Morhar, lies flat on the ground at Mount Zion Cemetery, knocked from its ledger. It’s an elegant headstone, weighing more than 1,000 pounds. A few feet below, an engraved picture showing a handsome Morhar is inscribed in capital letters, “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

Just a few feet away is the headstone of Isidore Goldstein, her grandfather. It, too, lies flat on the ground, but unlike Morhar’s headstone, this one had the misfortune of landing face down.

The headstone of Ned Goldstein, Janken’s uncle, is intact for now, but it leans dangerously over the cement block that shields the casket. The cement block is cracked in half and sinking into the ground. 

Only the grave of Rebecca Goldstein, Janken’s grandmother, has managed to withstand severe damage, a stroke of luck seen too rarely at this cemetery in East Los Angeles, where nearly 7,000 Jews have their final resting place. The last burial occurred seven years ago.

“I feel very bad that they are in such a place that is so neglected,” said Janken, an 85-year-old Westwood resident. “There’s no element of respect for the lives that they led.” 

Hundreds of beautiful headstones have been toppled over, cracked or shattered — many face down. Some are so heavy that as they fell on the cement block overlaying a casket, the force of the impact severely cracked the cement. 

The site’s internal roads are in desperate need of repair, the uneven and ragged grounds have little or no grass, and the untended trees are infested with rats — but those are the least of Mount Zion’s problems. What has plagued the Jewish cemetery has been a failure to curb vandalism and to repair the severe destruction caused by the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. 

The vandalism appears to have been caused by neighborhood gangs who enter the cemetery due to inadequate fencing, according to Akiva Leyton, the funeral director at Home of Peace Memorial Park and Mortuary, one of Mount Zion’s neighboring cemeteries and operator of Mount Zion. None of the vandalism, Leyton said, appears to be motivated by anti-Semitism.

“I just feel devastated that a place like this exists in Los Angeles,” Leyton said during a recent walk through Mount Zion. 

Hundreds, if not thousands, of massive headstones — works of art, really — line the rows of the cemetery that dates back to 1916. These impressive headstones would cost hundreds of dollars in the early 20th century, Leyton said, and would carry a price tag in the thousands now.

But even the heaviest headstones don’t stand a chance against a determined shove or kick, and certainly not against an earthquake. When Home of Peace employees find a headstone lying helplessly on the ground, they can’t do much. As the cemetery’s operator — not the owner — its employees can do no more than basic week-to-week maintenance. 

Bringing in contractors for serious restoration work at Mount Zion requires approval from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which agreed to become the cemetery’s custodian after the original owner, the Jewish free-burial society Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth, notified it in 1969 that it was no longer able to manage the cemetery. 

Ivan Wolkind, Federation’s chief operating and financial officer, said that for at least the past 10 years, Federation has spent about $25,000 annually on the cemetery. Every year, Home of Peace receives $12,000 from Federation to perform routine maintenance and, according to Wolkind, Federation spends about another $13,000 per year on various projects, including graffiti removal and compliance with various city ordinances.

The cemetery’s most urgent needs — repaired fencing, a new front gate, new concrete for cement ledgers and covers and, most noticeably, the repair and reattachment of hundreds of headstones — would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2007 estimate projected a cost of about $250,000 to repair more than 4,000 headstones. 

According to Wolkind and Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson, Federation’s approval for any restoration project undertaken by an outside group primarily would hinge on raising all the required money for skilled contractors in advance of beginning any work. Wolkind said his fear is that a partial job done by an unqualified contractor could leave Mount Zion “worse than what we started off with.”

That’s what happened in the early 1990s when a company was brought in to right some of the fallen headstones, according to Ted Gostin, past president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles.

“In order to do some of the concrete work, they moved the stones and didn’t know where to put them back,” he said. “It wasn’t done really well, and it created almost as many problems as it solved.”

Rabbi Moshe Greenwald of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles is organizing a
fundraising campaign and pursuing estimates from contractors. He said that Federation should allow professional and licensed contractors to begin work even if only a portion of the required money has been raised.

“If we could fix one grave, that’s a tremendous mitzvah,” Greenwald said.

Izek Shomof, a real estate developer who has worked on several downtown restoration projects, has pledged up to $25,000 to repair an entire row of graves at Mount Zion.
Greenwald’s plan is to restore one row and then launch a campaign where any willing individuals, organizations and synagogues could sponsor the restoration of individual graves and entire rows.

“What are we waiting for?” Greenwald asked.

Sanderson, who has visited the cemetery within the past month, said that if the community is serious about fixing Mount Zion, then other parties aside from Federation have to play a role.

“I believe that we have done a community service by taking care of it to the best of our ability to this point, but it’s not coming from our budget. It’s not in our priorities,” he said. “We have to prioritize what we do with our resources and we can’t do everything, and it’s unfair to think that we can.”

Later this month, Greenwald, Sanderson and a group of local rabbis will travel to the cemetery to observe the damage. Greenwald hopes that the effect of viewing Mount Zion’s state of ruin, as a group, will help get the restoration work started.

“This is a Jewish obligation to do,”  Greenwald said. “It’s not a secondary issue.” 

Ukrainian city agrees to stop using Jewish headstones as pavement

The city of Lviv in Ukraine agreed to remove Jewish headstones currently used as pavement.

The grave markers, from cemeteries destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Ukraine in the 1940s, will be moved to the only cemetery that was not destroyed during the Holocaust, according to Sprirt24, a Netherlands-based news agency.

The Soviet Red Army, which moved in on the heels of the retreating Nazi army, used the headstones as pavement, according to Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine’s representative in the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union, who has lobbied for the headstones' removal for years.

He told Spririt24 that the local market was built by the Soviet authorities in 1947 from Jewish headstones, which were placed horizontally and covered with asphalt.

Viktor Zaharchuk, a local resident, showed the Spirit24 film crew some headstones with Hebrew writings that were directly placed on the ground as pavement.

The city was considering several designs for a monument at Lviv’s the only remaining Jewish cemetery, Spirit24 reported, though it is unclear whether that monument would incorporate the headstones after they are removed.

Israel repatriates Palestinian terrorists’ bodies

Israel turned over to Palestinian officials the bodies of 91 terrorists.

The remains of 80 Palestinian terrorists, which had been buried in an Israeli military cemetery in the West Bank, were turned over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank on Thursday. Another 11 bodies were repatriated to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Suicide bombers responsible for the deaths of more than 200 Israelis were among the bodies transferred. The Almagor terror victims association on Wednesday had ripped the government for the handover.

Included among the repatriated bodies was Ramez Aslim, the suicide bomber who attacked the central Jerusalem Cafe Hillel in 2003. Dual Israeli-American citizens Dr. David Applebaum, head of the emergency room at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, and his daughter Nava, who was to have been married the day after the bombing, were killed in that attack.

Dozens of reserve soldiers were called into service to exhume the bodies during the month of May, Ynet reported.

The repatriation of the bodies is being called a good-will gesture to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. It reportedly was agreed to during a meeting in Ramallah earlier this month between Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy, Isaac Molcho.

In ripping the government, the Almagor group’s chairman, Meir Indor, said that “The Netanyahu-Barak-Mofaz government is giving a boost to terror and abusing the bereaved families and the injured. This is a government without a heart and without a brain.”

An official ceremony to honor the terrorists was scheduled to be held Thursday in the PA’s presidential compound in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh told the Palestinian Ma’an news service. A ceremony also reportedly will be held in Gaza.

Adding insult to injury

Kosovo Jewish cemetery desecrated

Kosovo authorities are investigating the desecration Tuesday of a local Jewish cemetery. Swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans were sprayed on tombstones of this old cemetery which was restored less than six months ago.

Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, Chief Rabbi of Albania and Chabad representative to the region who was designated to oversee the cemetery by the Government of Kosovo, was contacted by the Prime Minister’s office, which condemned the vandalism.

“They reassured me that the authorities are working vigorously to find the perpetrators,” Kaplan told in a phone interview from Israel.

There are about 70 Jewish graves in the cemetery, which lay in disrepair for years. “It was used a soccer field, and the graves were used as goalies,” said Rabbi Kaplan.

After the renovation in June by a group of American and Kosovan students, Kaplan learned that certain groups objected to the government for its help in restoring the cemetery. Kaplan says he suspects that the complaints came from neighboring Serbia.

“As Jewish life in the Balkans experiences a renewal, we’re seeing resentment and opposition by certain organizations and groups who seem not to tolerate the Jewish revival this region is experiencing,” Kaplan said.

Rabbi Kaplan made a recommendation to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, as a cautionary measure, that security cameras be installed on the cemetery grounds.

The Prime Minister did not see reason for any real worry, said Kaplan. “We were rather optimistic. The fact is that when people in Kosovo see me—a conspicuously religious Jew—they approach with warmth and blessing. They want to learn about Judaism, and are so happy to see Jews return to this area,” said Kaplan.

President Atifete Jahjaga condemned the act. “The damaging of cemeteries presents an act in complete contradiction with the traditions and values of the people of Kosovo, based on tolerance and full respect for all the dead and all the monuments,” Jahjaga said in a statement.

Kosovo, which is largely Muslim, has a tiny population of 50 Jews. The former Serbian province declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

Jewish cemetery in Riga is desecrated

Large swastikas were found painted on more than 100 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in the capital of Latvia.

The swastikas apparently were painted in white spray paint overnight Tuesday at the New Jewish Cemetery in Riga. A cemetery guard made the discovery the next morning, according to reports. State and local police are investigating.

The same cemetery was desecrated in 2003. The five then-teenage perpetrators in 2005 received suspended prison sentences ranging from 6 months to three years.

Graves defaced in Argentina include terror victims

Graves belonging to AMIA Jewish Center attack victims were among those vandalized in an Argentine Jewish cemetery.

Fifty-eight headstones at the La Tablada Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires province were defaced between Sept. 11 and 12. Eight belonged to victims of the 1994 center bombing, which killed 85.

“All the investment in security made in the cemetery was not enough?” asked Olga Degtiar, mother of Cristian Degtiar, who was killed in the AMIA bombing.

The president of the National Institute Against Discrimination, Maria Jose Lubertino, said the attack was an “evident anti-Semitic aggression.” Jewish leaders denounced the vandalism.