Efforts are underway to organize a pilot project aimed at improving a small portion of run-down Har Nebo Cemetery — and organizer Rich Blumberg is optimistic that the project can not only succeed but grow in scope.
Blumberg said his impetus came when he wrote a history of his family, which has 10 members buried at Har Nebo.
“I visited with my son and was astonished by the number of fallen stones and disrepair,” he said. “It just doesn’t sit right for us living descendants, and it won’t be any better 20 or 30 years from now.”
Blumberg, who is the founder of business development and technology collaboration consulting company World Sales Solution, LLC, hopes to raise $10,000-$20,000 and identify an accessible 10-foot-by-20-foot location at Har Nebo to restore 10 to 18 gravestones.
The project would include lifting fallen headstones, filling in uneven ground, removing overgrown vegetation and cleaning the stones, Blumberg said.
Blumberg realizes he’s starting small, considering the size of the distressed cemetery, but figures the general interest in genealogy these days may spur others into participating. He hopes to encourage synagogues to join in, as well as college fraternities and sororities looking for service projects and even kindergartners to paint decorative rocks.
“Even if I could do one plot a year, it’s better than nothing,” he said. “We want to create a template kit that can be used by other Jewish cemeteries.”
Har Nebo owner Richard Levy said he’d be amenable to a well-organized project under certain conditions.
“I’d have to think about this some more,” he said. “We’d always have to think of safety and that sort of stuff.”
Levy, who also owns Mount Carmel Cemetery, said in the past he has made volunteers sign waivers before cleanup projects.
Cemetery problems are a frequent complaint received by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, according to Addie Lewis Klein, director of community engagement. She said they receive half a dozen calls every week.
“A number of us from the Jewish Federation are in support of this and giving advice and helping to get this off the ground,” she said.
Other organized and informal efforts have been made to restore local cemeteries in recent years.
The Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery has worked for several years to restore a once-largely forgotten cemetery owned by adjacent Beth David Reform Congregation.
And a 2015 Jewish Exponent article about rundown conditions at Har Zion Cemetery in Darby refers to a woman identified only as Rivka, who said she had been visiting and repairing parts of the cemetery for 42 years. She did the same at Mount Sharon Cemetery in Springfield.
The Exponent has documented complaints about several area cemeteries in recent years.
In 2020, both Har Nebo and Mount Carmel were criticized because of poor conditions and closed gates. Levy attributed the problems then to the pandemic, but has since cited the difficulties of running cemeteries in an era when cremations are on the rise.
Levy was pushed by Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and state Rep. Jared Solomon, among others, to take care of the cemeteries. Jewish Federation helped arrange for a landscaping crew to cut the grass over the summer.
Mount Carmel was extensively vandalized in February 2017, prompting a large-scale restoration effort.
And as reported Jan. 7, complaints have increased about Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby in recent years. President Larry Moskowitz attributed part of the problem to declining revenues.
Older cemeteries with few new burials have less money coming in and tend to exhaust their perpetual care funds.
Those trends may worsen, according to the National Funeral Directors Association Cremation and Burial Report. The 2020 cremation rate was 56%, up 8% from 2015, and the organization projects that by 2035 nearly 80% of Americans will be cremated.
Klein noted that maintaining Jewish cemeteries can be especially difficult because they are more tightly packed, making mowing and landscaping more problematic.
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