Preserving Our Jewish Cemeteries
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by Cathy Weiss
When I first came to work at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland more than 25 years ago, I was given a daunting task: managing the care and preservation of our community’s Jewish cemeteries. Even though I have lived in Cleveland my entire life, it was not until I began my work at the Federation that I heard others mentioning local cemeteries that I never knew about. I later realized that many of our older Jewish cemeteries depict the history and movement of our community.
The first cemetery I visited was in disarray with stones toppled over. I knew they needed to be attended to, but there was more to caring for these cemeteries than just cleaning and beautifying the grounds.
I realized that when people call me upset that a headstone is down, a tree is overgrown, and no one is taking action, what they are really calling about is the existential issue of coping with death, grief, and remembrance. They wonder, “Where did my mother go? My father? My grandparents? My child?” And ultimately, “Where am I going?”
I didn’t want to deal with issues related to death – most of us don’t – yet, I realized that all of us need to deal with this for our family and ultimately ourselves. The questions of “What happens to us when we die? Will anyone take care of us?” is something we all deal with.
How many of you have thought about where you will be buried? How much are burial costs? How will your burial location be taken care of in perpetuity? Who is taking care of it now? And, what is the role of the community and a communal organization?
The community is here as a safety net, and I have seen that safety net in action. I’m very proud that the Federation’s Commission on Cemetery Preservation’s (COCP) role in cemetery preservation is expanding. COCP, a foundation of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, ensures the dignified maintenance, sustainability, and perpetuity of Cleveland’s Jewish cemeteries under the Federation’s supervision. And now, we are involved in the maintenance of six Jewish cemeteries with over 10,000 graves, many of which are in neighborhoods where the Jewish community no longer lives.
And so, as a community, it is our responsibility to care for those who have come before us.
We hired a full-time Cemetery Operations Manager, and have an infrastructure in place. We developed a database at www.accessjewishcleveland.org that contains close to 70,000 names of the deceased. Families can now find where their relatives are and be assured that these graves will be maintained in a dignified and honorable manner.
Twenty-five years has passed for me. No matter how large of a task this has been, the outcome of our efforts has been one of the most meaningful projects I’ve been involved with in all my years at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.