Thirteen graduate students in the Villanova University Department of History have researched the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery to answer the question: Who were the people of Har Hasetim?
An old cemetery is getting a new start at life. But it first must go back to the beginning.
About a quarter mile up on a hill behind Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne lies buried history — the Har Hasetim Cemetery.
The cemetery was active from 1893 to its derestriction in 1945, and has been in shambles ever since — overgrown vines, weeds and trees cover the cracked and faded headstones.
That’s where the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery come in. The group helps restore the inactive cemetery and is planning to make it a park-like place where people can enjoy its natural beauty.
But plans for the future are easier than understanding the graveyard’s past.
Many names on headstones are faded, completely crushed or simply not visible anymore, so the size of the cemetery and history of its occupants are still uncertain.
But 13 graduate students in the Villanova University Department of History have taken on this project to determine just that.
They studied public history to answer the question: Who were the people of Har Hasetim?
The students — none of whom are Jewish — split up research projects to answer this question by analyzing census facts, creating databases of the people buried, studying Philadelphians of this era, looking at immigration trends and understanding causes of death.
About 40 people attended the students’ May 5 presentation.
Attendees had the opportunity to ask questions to the student panelists after their presentations.
The class was led by Dr. Craig Bailey, an associate professor of history at Villanova who mainly teaches British and Irish history but every now and then delves into local history, too.
He’s done some research for the cemetery before, and when it came time in his department to do a public history practicum, he thought of it.
Bailey, who also is not Jewish, said this research is important for the community.
“There hasn’t been a public interest in this before, in the past in attempts to preserve the site,” he said. “These kind of public history sites often face this, that it depends on a consistency in a very dedicated group to sustain that site.”
Fortunately, it has the Friends of Gladwyne.
“There’s a lot of interesting burial sites in Lower Merion. There’s a Chinese cemetery. There’s an African-American cemetery,” he added. “And neither of those have really been given any attention historically, and I think it would be great if this cemetery could be a starting point to start to think about Lower Merion’s ethnic cemeteries and diverse religious cemeteries rather than the way we often think about them.”
Brianna Quade, a 23-year-old graduate student, did her own individual research to understand Jewish housing conditions around the Main Line during the 1890s as a way to assess the bigger picture.
“I was able to combine my interests … to be able to give the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery something they can use to show school groups or any guests that they have,” she said.
Quade added that she wanted to find out how these people lived.
“I’m just glad that we can give the history of this incredible cemetery and bring light to the historic landmarks that are in Philadelphia and greater Philadelphia. Even if they don’t have landmark status, they’re still important to understanding Philadelphia history.”
Sarah Johnson agreed.
The 30-year-old graduate student focused her research on what’s next for the cemetery.
“Once I visited the site, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, I saw the site’s future plan. How can you get there?’ ” she asked.
She suggested a preliminary plan based on her findings. She made a map of boundaries and broke them up into 30-by-30 lots to show how many people are actually buried and who they are.
She recommended the Friends of Gladwyne get help from volunteer networks, university history programs or foundations that give grants to Jewish projects.
“Especially being on the Main Line in Gladwyne and being in Philadelphia where things like Christ Church are big — a historical site that you go to visit — it’s good to know that there are actually other cultures, realistically other time periods, that are important in Philadelphia history,” she added.
But studying the landscape wasn’t as self-explanatory as expected.
Johnson said they needed help translating Hebrew headstones or explaining why, in parts of the cemetery, men and women were separated.
“No one in the class is Jewish, so it’s kind of a learning experience, too,” she admitted, “to not only learn how to work with an organization outside of the school, but how to work with a culture that you’re not at all experienced with or know anything about.”
Stephen Anderer, president of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, said he is grateful for the students’ work.
Of the more than 2,500 estimated people buried there, new research shows that about 76 percent of them were children, and Anderer said that changes the story in many ways.
“We want to add a lot of the history and information that they collected to make it accessible by our website,” he said, “but I really do think that having a plan going forward for a systematic way in which to both identify and locate graves and then connect all the information we have with those gravesites and make it readily accessible to people.”
This research may just be a stepping stone for what’s to come next, but it is a snapshot — a blurry one — of that time period.
“This is helping us to tell the Jewish-American story and, more broadly, the American story,” he said.
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