Lacking long-term plans, many U.S. Jewish cemeteries in neglect

For years, the historic Jewish cemetery was so overgrown with weeds, plagued by toppled headstones, and littered with fallen branches, beer cans and snack-food wrappers that at least a quarter of its graves were impossible to reach.

Even now, after a $140,000 cleanup and improved maintenance procedures, the 35,000-grave cemetery relies on the generosity of a non-Jewish volunteer to repair its tombstones, fences and mausoleums.

The cemetery isn’t in Eastern Europe. It’s the Bayside Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York City, and it’s among countless Jewish cemeteries across the country in varying states of disrepair. Some 40 to 50 of them are in the New York area alone.

There are a plethora of reasons for Jewish cemeteries’ troubles. Many are owned by synagogues, associations or burial societies that no longer exist or are on their last legs. Once a cemetery stops bringing in revenues – i.e. fresh graves — the operating budget dries up unless sufficient money has been set aside for the long term. At Bayside, annual cemetery upkeep costs $90,000.

“Based on current practices, substantially all Jewish cemeteries will be unable to pay for their upkeep within 25 to 50 years after their last grave is sold,” said Gary Katz, president of New York’s Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, a group founded in 2007 and funded largely by UJA-Federation of New York.

[Related: Restoring Mount Zion Cemetery]

While most nonprofit cemeteries are required to put aside a certain percentage of their revenues into endowment funds for the future — ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on the state — most experts say that amount is not enough to ensure a cemetery will remain financially viable. Furthermore, many Jewish cemeteries are registered as religious organizations and wholly exempt from state regulations. At such cemeteries, plot owners have no way of knowing whether the family plot will be maintained two or three generations on.

Mark Stempa, who according to tax filings earned more than $500,000 in 2012 running two large nonprofit Jewish cemeteries in Queens — Mount Zion and Mount Carmel — and is a paid board member of a third, says his cemeteries are approaching capacity and already relying on investment income to cover operations.

“We conservatively invest, and hopefully that income generated from the trust funds is going to care for the cemetery in the future,” he told JTA. But, Stempa acknowledged, “What’s going to happen in 100 years, I really don’t know.”

By the time a cemetery is full, it should have 20 times its annual operating expenses in an endowment, says Stan Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. But few do, he says.

“As the community changes, we’ll have more defaults,” Kaplan said.

In city after city, local Jewish communities – often, as in Bayside’s case, the local federation – are having to step in and put up money to save Jewish burial grounds.

“If the cemetery doesn’t have enough money and its owners abandon it, whose responsibility will it be to take care of it?” asked David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, a national organization that provides training to Jewish burial societies.

A number of communities are trying to ensure that their Jewish cemeteries are cared for in perpetuity by reshaping the way their cemeteries operate. The focus is on collaboration and long-term financial planning.

The Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati was established as a nonprofit in 2004 by pooling the endowments of struggling and financially viable cemeteries and raising $6 million. The organization now runs most of the Cincinnati area’s Jewish cemeteries.

“We were very fortunate to have the Jewish foundation willing to put up a lot of money to make this happen,” said David Hoguet, executive director of the organization. “If money were available in other cities, you’d see more of this happening.”

The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, created in 1984, now manages 108 cemeteries. It originally took over only insolvent cemeteries, but later absorbed several healthy and operational ones as well. It has raised $10 million to endow its operations — one-fourth of what is needed to cover its annual expenses in perpetuity.

A cemetery association launched in 2004 by the Jewish federation in New Haven, Conn., has taken ownership of eight cemeteries and created a centralized maintenance system that other Jewish cemeteries pay to use.

But cemetery collectives are the exception rather than the rule. Most Jewish communities don’t have any central association to deal with cemeteries, and those that do often have minimal funding or limited purviews. It’s also hard to get operational and financially healthy cemeteries that might be able to subsidize the care of other cemeteries to come under a communal umbrella.

Zinner says Jewish communities need to face the challenges of cemetery maintenance collectively – and ahead of time.

“Don’t wait until there’s a disaster,” he said. “Every Jewish cemetery should have a representative of the Jewish community at large on its board.”

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.

Hundreds of Jewish gravestones found in Greece

Police in northern Greece have recovered hundreds of headstones from Jewish graves destroyed during the Holocaust.

The 668 fragments were found buried in a plot of land in central Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, following a 70-year search for the remains of graves smashed when the city's main Jewish cemetery was destroyed, the Associated Press reported.

The head of the city's Jewish community, David Saltiel, said most of the marble gravestones found dated from the mid-1800s up until World War II.

An estimated 60,000 Greek Jews, most of the country's prewar Jewish population, were killed in the Holocaust.

Saving Shanghai’s Jewish Past Via Headstones

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Western philanthropists and volunteers are restoring dozens of historic Jewish cemeteries.

But in Shanghai, there are none to restore.

The four cemeteries that once served this city’s small but prosperous Jewish community disappeared in the late 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution. The sites were paved over to build a factory, park, hotel and Muslim cemetery, their history forgotten.

Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal is trying to change that.

While the cemeteries may be gone, since 2001 Bar-Gal has made it his mission to track down as many of the original headstones as possible. He has located 85 and hopes to use them in a memorial to Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The project has kept Bar-Gal in Shanghai for more than seven years, and he is waiting for government permission to erect the memorial. The clock is ticking, he says.

“In a few years, the area where I found these stones will be gone,” Bar-Gal said in an interview. “The villages I first visited have been redeveloped and are now upscale residences.”

Shanghai, a major port that is now China’s largest city, has had three waves of Jewish immigration. The first began in 1845, when David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew living in India, moved his family business to Shanghai, which was China’s first city to open to the West. He was joined by two other Baghdad Jews, Elly Kadoorie and Silas Hardoon, and as the community grew they built Shanghai’s fortunes and their own.

After 1905, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and revolution arrived in Shanghai. And in the 1930s, in the third wave, some 30,000 refugees from Nazi Europe arrived in the city when other countries were closing their doors to Jewish refugees. Shanghai, an “open city,” allowed immigration without visa or passport.

Japan occupied Shanghai in World War II but refused Nazi orders to deport or murder the city’s Jews. The 20,000 stateless Jewish refugees still in the city were confined in what became known as the Hongkew ghetto, but those with jobs outside were permitted to continue working. The Iraqi and Russian Jewish communities, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, sent in frequent aid.

Disease and poverty were rampant, but the Jews of Shanghai were spared the horrors of the Holocaust. After the war, virtually all of them left for Hong Kong, Australia, North America and Israel.

Dvir Bar-Gal gives regular tours of Shanghai's Hongkew district, site of the wartime Jewish ghetto. Photo by Sue Fishkoff

Dvir Bar-Gal gives regular tours of Shanghai’s Hongkew district, site of the wartime Jewish ghetto.Photo by Sue Fishkoff

Bar-Gal discovered this history in November 2001 during a Jewish tour of Shanghai led by fellow expatriate Georgia Noy. She told him that a local antiques dealer was selling two Jewish tombstones from one of the abandoned cemeteries.

What began as a mystery tale soon turned into an all-consuming project. Bar-Gal and Noy visited the dealer and purchased one of the headstones; the other already had been sold.

The first headstone led Bar-Gal to dozens more, which he hunted down in villages outside the city. Some were being used as stepping-stones. Others were embedded in garden walls, used to build bridges or simply were thrown into rivers. Some village women used them as washboards, the letters worn away by years of scrubbing.

Funded in part by a grant from the Sino-Judaic Institute at Stanford University, Bar-Gal hired teams of workers to dig out the headstones from the strange places they had come to rest. In many cases he had to purchase them from villagers who claimed to own them.

Their inscriptions chronicle the history of Shanghai Jewry, from the 1874 headstone of a British sailor named Lazarus to the 1958 headstone of Charles Perceval Rakuzen, a British-born ophthalmologist whose sister still lives in England.

Bar-Gal set up a Web site with photos and information about the headstones he found, including interviews he conducted with surviving family members.

Twenty of the headstones found by Bar-Gal are being held by the government in a Buddhist cemetery while their fate is determined. Five others were too heavy to dig out. The 60 in his possession have been moved to four storage facilities over the years while Bar-Gal awaits government permission to build a Jewish memorial in a small park in the middle of the former ghetto. The park already contains a granite marker commemorating the Jews of the ghetto, and it is close to the recently restored Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which houses an exhibit of the city’s Jewish history.

“Tourists who care about the Jewish history of Shanghai come to this park, so it’s a natural place for such a memorial,” Bar-Gal said. “It would serve as a great bridge between Jewish and Chinese cultures while expressing the mutual hardship we shared in the dark days of World War II.”

The Israeli Consulate has added its voice to his pleas, but Bar-Gal has received just one response from the authorities.

“They said it’s bad luck to put gravestones in a park used by the living,” he said.

Bar-Gal now runs the tour of Jewish Shanghai, formerly offered by Noy, who has left China. Quite often, he says, former ghetto residents show up on his tour. If they remember their wartime address he can usually locate their homes; the city has not changed the numbers on old buildings.

But Shanghai’s population of 26 million is growing rapidly, and the Hongkew neighborhood, including the 1.25-square-mile Jewish ghetto, is slated for redevelopment.

The district mayor agreed six years ago to stave off construction for a sum of $700 million, but despite initial interest by two Canadian benefactors, no buyers have come forward. Bar-Gal points out that $700 million would be used primarily to relocate the neighborhood’s 16,000 residents; much more would be needed to maintain the area as a tourist destination.

Meanwhile, Bar-Gal’s 60 headstones rest in a warehouse he shares with the Jewish Center.

“They are somewhere between the pickles and the Passover matzah,” he said.

For more information, visit this article at l

To see Bar-Gal’s Web site with photos and information about the headstones he found, visit,

For information on Bar-Gal’s tour of Jewish Shanghai, visit