At Har Zion Cemetery in Darby, trash is easily visible: a Skittles wrapper in a foot-deep hole, a 16-ounce Wawa coffee cup, a crushed plastic water bottle. On one grave, two trashbags full of empty ice cream and other food containers were kept company by a neighboring diet mango green tea jug.
The headstones are askew, each slightly leaning to the left or the right. Some are completely toppled over. Covered with grass on one stone, an etched phrase is barely visible: “Loved but never forgotten.”
Unfortunately, cemetery vandalism and neglect is becoming more and more prevalent at some Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia.
Har Zion Cemetery owner Robert Feldman said overturned stones at the cemetery has been an ongoing problem, with roughly 70 stones knocked over in recent months. During a phone interview, he couldn’t recall the last time he filed a police report about it, but said it was fairly recent. (The Collingdale Boro Police Department says it has no reports about cemetery vandalism on file.)
The situation is reminiscent of the vandalism at Adath Jeshurun Cemetery on Bridge Street in early August, in which 125 headstones were toppled over. Occasionally, Feldman discovers anti-Semitic symbols spray-painted on the memorials. One stone was even pushed over two or three times within two months. Some of the headstones weigh as much as a car, so Feldman said it can be dangerous to put them back up immediately if the ground is too soft.
“They don’t realize the damage they’ve caused,” he said. However, most of the stones have been put upright again.
He added that the first priority is making the cemetery look appealing. However, it is a hazard to fix some things in inclement weather. It is not possible to cut grass or put headstones back up if the ground is wet, and he will not risk the lives of the employees doing so.
Feldman took over the cemetery after his parents passed away. He currently works at his own law firm in Miami but checks on the cemetery in person twice a month.
Rivka, who did not want to use her last name, said she has been visiting and repairing parts of Har Zion Cemetery for about 42 years. She has several family members buried there, including her parents.She was last there in mid-August, one of several visits she makes each year. She discovered overgrown grass, overturned headstones and mounds of dirt, unsure whether it was from a fresh burial or someone trying to uncover it.
She’s visited Mount Sharon Cemetery in Springfield, too, and finds similar issues with trash. During one of her visits to Mount Sharon, she said, she collected more than 50 beer cans.
During most of her visits, Rivka is accompanied by some family members, her pruning shears and a mower.
She cuts the grass. She cleans the plots. She fills in holes. She said she has also paid for professional care to regrow ivy as many times as she’s made challah in her life, which, for an Orthodox woman, is a lot. Rivka said she is at the age where many of her contemporaries have been to many cemeteries.
“It doesn’t exist like this at other cemeteries,” she said. “It’s time that someone had a little sensitivity because we’re all going to be in the ground someday; we’re all going to the same place.”
Whether due to vandalism or neglect — or some combination of the two — Harley Felstein, founder and president of Jewish R.E.A.C.H. Inc. (Restoring, Educating, Administering, Cemetery History), said this is something that happens across the country.
The nonprofit, based in Rockville, Md., helps repair all types of cemeteries, not just Jewish ones, and educates people about them. He said people should honor and respect the life cycle process.
“We as Jews are taught to honor thy father and thy mother,” he said. “Someone has to take the forefront, and that’s what I’m doing.”
In terms of vandalism and trespassing, Felstein recommends the “open gate” policy. If the cemetery has a locked fence at night, he said, it creates a challenge for people to break in. With an open gate, he has seen a decline in trespassers and vandalism. It also allows police to easily drive through at night.
Other cemeteries, like Shalom Memorial Park in Huintingdon Valley, could not comment on the issue of vandalism directly, but said they have not had any problems.
Adam Levine, partner with local funeral home Joseph Levine and Sons and supervisor at Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer, said he doesn’t see much vandalism either. He said the cemetery is in a quiet area of rural Chester County, but it has surveillance cameras too, which helps deter trespassers. Additionally, many of the stones in Haym Salomon Memorial Park are flat, making the destruction a bit more difficult for vandals.
Levine said he’d like to think that there isn’t really anti-Semitism in the city causing the destruction, but he’s unsure. He said it may just be based on the surrounding area and the maintenance of the cemetery itself. “It’s hard to say whether it’s vandalism or if it’s just not well-kept.”
Although some of these cemeteries are in disrepair due to vandalism or neglect, some community members are doing their best to restore them on their own. The Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery was founded about three years ago. It hopes to restore the inactive Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery and make it a respectful resting place while also enhancing the area’s natural features.
The cemetery has been around for more than 100 years. Beth David Reform Congregation bought the nearby land in 1999 to prevent the ultimate destruction of the cemetery and the removal of gravestones and bodies to another cemetery.
The last burial there was in 1945. The cemetery rarely sees visitors or trouble from vandals because it is far off the beaten path. On Oct. 25, a group of people joined the organization’s Sunday in the Cemetery event to see the land for themselves, discuss the history and learn how to get involved.
But about a quarter-mile walk from Beth David, finding the cemetery, let alone getting there, is no easy task. The group walked single-file through hilly, unpaved woods, rocks and dirt. The “faster” trail leads out of the woods, onto the busy Conshohocken State Road, up a neighbor’s driveway — which used to be the old groundskeeper’s house — and, finally, to the unmarked cemetery.
The 6-acre plot of land is so overgrown with vines and weeds that you can barely make out the cracked and faded gravestones. About 800 of an estimated 1,000 stones have been recorded in a database so far.
Stones are cracked and fallen over from decades of being untouched. Some of the graves are in random spots, trees growing in between each set, making them difficult to locate. The hills are unforgiving. However, Neil Sukonik, former president and now trustee member of the organization, said it looks better than it did before.Sukonik said the people buried there immigrated during that time to this area, some, however, even living there before that.
“These are real people buried here, with real families — we shouldn’t allow where some of our Jewish ancestors, the first Jews of Philadelphia, to be laid to rest in a place that’s decaying and falling apart. I think it’s an ethical and a moral issue as well as honoring those who came before us.”
The cemetery is derestricted, meaning no one can be buried there again, but he hopes to make it a more beautiful place.
“Nobody’s going to drive by and know that anything’s here,” Sukonik said. “We want people to come here and experience the beauty of it even if it’s just for the natural beauty of it. That will broaden the base of people who will have interest in the site.”
Shirley Birenbaum, now in her 70s, was one of the almost 30 attendees to learn about the cemetery’s history and future plans. Her daughter recently discovered that her great-great-grandfather — Birenbaum’s great-grandfather — is buried there. He died in 1900.She didn’t know much about her great-grandfather and wasn’t able to find his grave in the brush.
“I had never known. The family never discussed it. It was a secret,” she said. “I know more now than I ever did. It sounds like one day, it will be a place to come and visit.”
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