In early November 2020, Richard Blumberg took his son to Har Nebo Cemetery in Oxford Circle to visit the graves of 10 ancestors.
Upon arriving, Blumberg was devastated. About 2,000 of the cemetery’s 35,000 stones had toppled and broken in half.
“When I saw all the stones — falling, broken, ready to fall — I was like, ‘there’s got to be good people that would care,’” Blumberg said. “This is atrocious.”
Blumberg has devoted the past 11 months to partnering with the National Park Service and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, creating his group, Friends of Jewish Cemeteries, committed to leading efforts to tidy cemeteries and repair gravestones.
Friends of Jewish Cemeteries and the Jewish Federation will host a cleanup of Har Nebo on Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. It is continuing to raise up to $20,000 for a pilot restoration project to fully restore 10-20 graves at the cemetery.
“The way we respect our dead reflects our own values,” said Addie Lewis Klein, the Jewish Federation’s senior director of leadership development and community engagement. “And it’s important for the Jewish Federation to help convene and connect the people who can care about our history.”
The community’s response to the cleanup event has been overwhelming, Blumberg said. More than 300 people have signed up to volunteer. Friends of Jewish Cemeteries has raised more than $11,000 of the $20,000 goal.
At the cleanup, volunteers will pick up litter around the cemetery’s fence line; rake twigs, branches, leaves and other debris; and clip overgrown vines. Volunteers may also clean off the plaques that delineate the cemetery’s plots, allowing visitors to find the graves of loved ones.
Though volunteer help is needed to tidy the cemetery’s 16-acre grounds, much of the restoration work must be completed by professionals.
Many gravestones weigh 500-1,000 pounds, some up to 2,000 pounds. Lifting gravestones and leveling the ground underneath them have to be done by a professional. Masons must clean and repair the gravestones to avoid altering the text written on them.
With the money raised for the pilot project, Blumberg hopes to hire area conservator Joe Ferrannini to consult with him on how to best restore the pilot project’s allotted space at the beginning of November.
The pilot project will focus on a plot with graves from 1918-1936. The area has some graves that are toppled, leaning and split in multiple places, providing the opportunity to address multiple problems in a contained area. The spot is also accessible by truck.
“It gives us a really good cross section,” Blumberg said.
Har Nebo’s maintenance has declined likely due to its small perpetual care endowment that provides funds to keep plots tidy, according to Dennis Montagna, the program lead of Monument Research & Preservation for the National Parks Service.
Har Nebo was established in 1890, but fewer people are being buried there, which means less revenue is incoming to maintain the area. Rabbi Eliott Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, who will conduct a memorial service at the cleanup, has noticed a decrease in traffic there.
“I’ve been a rabbi here for a number of years, and I’ve only had about three or four funerals in that cemetery,” he said. “There’s still space for burial, but it’s not a cemetery that people are going to these days.”
Har Nebo owner Rich Levy said 44 people were buried there last year.
According to Perlstein, fewer people are aware of Har Nebo than before. There are other cemeteries in the area, including ones as old as and larger than Har Nebo.
Though poor maintenance is a manmade reason for a lack of cemetery upkeep, much of a cemetery’s maintenance is out of humans’ control, Montagna said.
Cemetery aging is inevitable, but environmental factors, such as rainfall, can shift the ground beneath the gravestones, as can the breaking down of caskets, he said. This is particularly an issue for Jewish cemeteries, where caskets are not ornate and quickly degrade.
If cemeteries are overgrown, they can become habitats for small animals, which can pose a danger for both the animals and visitors, Montagna said.
“Sometimes you have animals burrowing,” he said. “If the grass is overgrown, you don’t always see where those holes are, so the chance of stepping in one is pretty high.”
Montagna said that Har Nebo is particularly worse for wear: “It’s like the worst-case scenario.”
However, Montagna believes that there’s a renewed interest in cemeteries, thanks to Ancestry.com and similar sites that have made genealogy more accessible. Blumberg hopes to incorporate genealogy projects into Har Nebo cleanup efforts once more gravestones have been cleaned.
Har Nebo isn’t the only struggling Jewish cemetery.
Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby has struggled with upkeep. In 2017, vandals desecrated 275 gravestones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, which is also owned by Levy. The Jewish Federation raised $288,000 for cleanup.
Though cemetery cleanup efforts are seldom proactive, Perlstein believes it’s really the only way to help.
“Other than an event like this, where people are invited to purposely go to that cemetery, I don’t think there really is a more natural way,” Perlstein said.
Though Blumberg’s pilot project will only tackle a small portion of the cemetery, he hopes it’s just the beginning.
“My dream would be to start a movement where we, as a Jewish community, include cemeteries in our daily lives,” Blumberg said. “And we start to put our attention, our awareness and resources towards fixing them.”
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