Friends of Jewish Cemeteries restored and repaired 27 gravestones at Har Nebo Cemetery in Oxford Circle last month.
The effort is phase two of the organization’s restoration pilot project, which began on Nov. 9, to raise awareness of cemetery cleanup and restoration efforts in Philadelphia.
“What we do is combine three areas: cleanups; restoring, conserving of stones, locations for the pilot; and also genealogy, family group record research,” Friends of Jewish Cemeteries founder and chair Rich Blumberg said. “So with this, we’re able to touch the descendants, communities and neighbors.”
Over the two-week project, Blumberg coordinated with conservator Joe Ferrannini of Grave Stone Matters in New York. Ferrannini spent hours at Har Nebo working his way through two rows of 16 graves, removing stones, which can weigh between 500-750 pounds, and leveling the ground underneath it, which has grown uneven over the decades due to the decomposition of the simple wood coffins used in Jewish burial practices.
During this phase of the pilot, Ferrannini encountered a few complex cases, including a three-part cradle grave that consists of a gravestone, footstone and pieces of stone connecting the two to form a bathtub-shaped center. While some stones may take an hour or two to lift and replace, more complex structures can take most of the day.
“A lot of the challenge is being careful because it’s all part of the history, and you don’t want to remove historic fabric if you don’t have to,” Ferrannini said.
Restoring the stones requires professional, hired work, but Friends of Jewish Cemeteries has also hosted three cemetery cleanups over the past year — an opportunity for community members to pull weeds and debris from grave plots.
Friends of Jewish Cemeteries has also enlisted the help of the Jewish Genealogical and Archival Society of Greater Philadelphia, an “allied organization.”
According to JGASGP President Felicia Alexander, the genealogical society has conducted research on the individuals buried at Har Nebo and other neighboring cemeteries. The archives were digitized and made accessible on JGASGP’s website.
“Our society strongly believes that when people’s names are honored and respected after their death, that that’s an important aspect of what we do. … That’s not just taking care of the physical aspects of the cemetery, but also preserving the records,” Alexander said.
So far, JGASGP’s research on those buried at Har Nebo has taken unexpected turns. At the height of the pandemic, a history teacher in France contacted Alexander asking about a Jewish World War I soldier who was buried in a French cemetery. After the war, many deceased soldiers were disinterred and repatriated to America, finding their final resting place in the United States. This particular soldier was buried in Har Nebo.
The genealogy project allows for descendants of deceased family members buried at the cemetery to locate those graves. Upon visiting, Alexander said, it’s important for those descendants to see their family member’s graves well-maintained.
In the future, Blumberg hopes to expand the pilot to Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby, though he recognizes that Friends of Jewish Cemeteries alone won’t be able to restore entire sections of neglected cemetery plots.
“We want to change the tide of despair and build momentum,” he said.
Blumberg hopes that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which supports Friends of Jewish Cemeteries as a special project, will invest in the future of cemetery maintenance.
Jewish Federation Senior Chief of External Affairs Jeffrey Lasday said that the Jewish Federation is in the early stages of exploring options.
“Right now, we’re still in the process of doing our due diligence, exploring: What are the costs involved? What are the different options?” Lasday said.
The Jewish Federation is looking at models other organizations have implemented to address similar issues. For example, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh put together a nonprofit to “look after” cemeteries in western Pennsylvania, according to Lasday.
David Mink, who had a relative’s stone restored through the pilot project, said he felt disappointed and “helpless” seeing his family’s graves in disarray. He believes that the Jewish Federation should be involved, as the restoration work that needs to be done exceeds the scope of Friends of Jewish Cemeteries.
“This is a community’s legacy,” Mink said. “And [the Jewish] Federation, which represents the Jewish community, is the guardian.”
“Not only is it our legacy, but it’s going to help define our future,” he added. JE