It takes a village. Or sometimes, a yeshiva.
About 25 boys from the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia tended to the overgrown site of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery on Sept. 16.
Yard work is usually a tedious job, but in a just a matter of minutes, it was transformed.
The cemetery, owned by Beth David Reform Congregation, hides just up against Conshohocken State Road. Up the hilly terrain, it is visibly beautiful from the towering trees creating patches of shadows on the ground.
But down below, the gravesites of more than 1,000 are dilapidated or covered by debris and overgrown weeds.
The Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has been working to make the area — which stopped accepting burials in 1945 — a respectable resting site, as well as create an enjoyable parklike atmosphere.
The boys split up into groups to weed patches of headstones and clear paths — while carefully avoiding poison ivy — totaling about an hour of work.
In the process, they uncovered a fallen gravestone, wiping dirt away to reveal the names of the deceased.
Head of School Rabbi Avraham Steinberg said the cleanup was a mitzvah but also a learning experience.
Tucking in their tzitzit, the boys prayed at the entrance of the cemetery. On the way out, they tossed grass over their shoulders, signifying the “resurrection of the dead in the era of Moshiach,” according to Chabad.org.
“Cleaning cemeteries is an activity that yeshiva boys and yeshiva high schools do sometimes take on,” Steinberg said, also joining the boys in weeding the area in his dark suit and blue-patterned tie. “We discovered literally in our backyard — this is about 3½ miles from the Mesivta — there is a cemetery with people who lived whole lives 100 years ago and probably had hard lives, and then were buried here. And they’ve been pretty much abandoned for almost a century. So it’s not just a mitzvah, it’s a sense of responsibility, and we want the boys to feel that.”
He hopes this experience will influence some of the boys to come back because there’s a lot of work to still be done.
“It’s amazing that something can lay unattended to for decades and then in a matter of really just a few minutes young men can make it look presentable,” he added.
Neil Sukonik, president of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, hopes the boys come back, too, so they can help transcribe some of the inscriptions on the gravestones that are in Yiddish.
Yitzy Tanner, 16, was proud of the progress the class made.
“They showed us the trails before we cleared them, and it was very clear how much progress we had made because you could look back and see the cleared trails,” he said. “We’re making a very big impact.”
Within the time allotted, the weeds rooted in the ground were piled at least 4 feet high against an old rusted piece of a metal fence.
“Usually when I see a graveyard I’m just driving by. It’s nice, level, flat land. Here, it’s all built on a hill. There are trees everywhere, and it’s not very clear,” Tanner continued. “Nature has started taking over, and it’s nice and respectful to the people who are buried here that we’re trying to bring it back to its former condition.
“I just appreciate the opportunity to do this. As a member of the Philadelphia community, it’s important, too.”
Sukonik praised the boys on their commendable job.
He said this is the first group to volunteer on the grounds since about June.
“The amount of work they’ve put in, the difference they’ve made in reclaiming the path that we just really started before the summertime, to make it passable, and to allow us to take the next step, which will be to ultimately put some more permanent ground cover on it, is just remarkable,” he said.
“Sometimes you have kids come here, and they’re here because they have to be. They were told that today this is what you’re going to do. And they do a good job, but they’re distracted. These guys are not distracted at all,” he added. “This group has really been focused, and you can tell it’s meaningful to them, it’s important to them. They get the history and understand the significance. They can also tell very quickly the difference that they’ve made. It’s very tangible.”
Sukonik hopes that over the next couple of years, they repeat this cleaning process a little bit less. Rather than continuously plucking weeds, they intend to plant slow-growing, maintenance-free grass that grows about 6 inches high and then falls over onto itself.
“You see the progress that’s being made. That’s what we want people to understand: If they’re going to contribute to this effort, either financially or through their own physical effort out here helping, that we are making progress, and we are making a difference. If you come back year after year, what you see is progress occurring.”
Making such strides comes shortly after the passing of Stephen Anderer, the previous president of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, who unexpectedly died
on Aug. 28.
“Stephen has been a crucial part of our board, and now as our past president. The kind of work he did out here — he loved to be out here doing the handwork. It was one of things that was really a passion of his,” Sukonik said. “So if he was here to see the kind of work the boys have done, he’d be so proud. He’d have a big smile on his face.”
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