February 17, 2019

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.”