Jewish Cemeteries In Distress

By M. B. Kanis
The creation of cemeteries as a final location is as old as man-kind. The creation of Jewish Cemeteries is unique, as Jewish religious customs require that Jewish burial sites be held in reverence.

Recent documented incidents of desecration, vandalism, and failures to maintain multiple Jewish Cemeteries in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, as well as occurrences in other cemeteries throughout the United States, prompted the following information in the desire to protect the deceased and provide context for the greater good.

What makes a Jewish Cemetery Jewish?
Establishing a cemetery is one of the first priorities for any Jewish community. According to Jewish tradition, Jewish burial grounds are sacred sites and must remain undisturbed in perpetuity.

A Jewish cemetery has physical boundaries that set the cemetery off from its surroundings, marking it holy for Jews. Inner reflection is often observed in a place of calm. A Jewish cemetery is considered consecrated ground where Jewish burial practices and customs are observed.

For Jews, a grave site is permanent and once established should not be violated.

The religious duty of burial is the responsibility of a decedent’s children or spouse. If there are no children or spouse, it is the responsibility of the closest relative. If no relatives, then the community. As time passes, it becomes the responsibility of those alive to respect the dead.

How are Veterans effected?
From the earliest sunrise of birth to the twilight last gleaming, members of the Jewish faith, first as volunteers, then as conscripted, and once again as volunteers, have served to protect and defend the United States. As veterans as well as citizens, the lives of people of the Jewish faith are intertwined with service to family and the community in many forms.

Our respect for our faith honorably distinguishes Jews as a guiding force during life and in repose. Over the millennia, the Jewish religion has codified customs and practices which we strive to live by out of respect for each other, the contributions each person has provided, no matter how small or far reaching. When our time on this earth ends, we as family, friends, or simply as strangers show a common dignity to provide a lasting resting place as a sign of remembrance for life.

According to the Family Research Organization, as of 2018 there were approximately 22,000 known dedicated Jewish Cemeteries, of the more than 145,000 graveyards and marked cemeteries in the United States, Territories and foreign U.S. managed sites.

With the aging population within America, there is also the aging of Jewish Cemeteries. More often in recent years, cemetery owners and operators are facing higher maintenance costs. Grounds appearance and paid perpetual care of individual and community grave sites are not maintained by a small percentage of operators.

Each of us, when visiting a deceased member or observing natural or wanton degradation, lack of maintenance, vandalism, or visible Anti-Semitic acts, have a duty and moral obligation to be vigilant, to say something, and to act to maintain the grounds of fellow Jews for the greater good of the whole community.

What do we look for in a Jewish Cemetery?
Different Jewish groups have different traditions about gravestones. Historically Ashkenazi Jews often have vertical gravestones and Sephardic Jews have horizontal stones. Sephardic stones often have angelic figures and biblical images, while images were not permitted on Ashkenazi stones.
In the modern era, both groups make frequent use of classic Jewish symbols: the Star of David, the Menorah, Tree of Life, the Book of Life, or a candle.

Historically, families that belonged to the priestly class (Kohanim), were forbidden to go inside the gates of a cemetery because that would violate laws of ritual purity. According to Arthur Kurzweil’s “From Generation to Generation,” their gravestones usually bear the symbol of two hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread out in a priestly blessing.

With a request, and at no charge to the applicant, the Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes a government headstone or marker for the grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.

When purchasing a grave site, ensure the cemetery owner is bonded or provides proof of operating insurance. Upon research of the grave site to be chosen, look at the overall appearance, and the look of maintained graves and entry.

When purchasing perpetual care, determine if the people in charge of the perpetual fund are bonded or insured, which almost every state requires.
A perpetual fund is a separate bank account and/or lawful saving instrument, that is used as the principal fund for maintaining the property. Owners or operators may and often do use the interest earned from the perpetual fund to operate the overall function and appearance of the entire Jewish Cemetery while maintaining the appearance of individual grave sites paid for that eternity.

Owners may not spend the actual perpetual fund without lawful order.

What to do if you see degraded conditions or other serious lack of maintenance?
Call the cemetery owner, operator, or superintendent and politely voice your concern with specifics. Ask for action and an approximate date when the problem will be resolved. If the date for resolution is longer than a few weeks, and you haven’t seen any action taken, write a brief letter, addressed to the owner or operator confirming your earlier attempts and requesting reasonable action on their part. Anything placed in writing will serve as a dated proof of concern.

If no actions are observed and without a reasonable cause for the delay, your next step is to call your local appointed or elected Consumer Protection Representative, providing your details and documentation. If there is no Consumer Representative, call your local politicians with the same details.
On serious matters of overall neglect, a call or photograph to the local news station, newspaper, or regional Federation may also be useful. Anti-Semitic postings or other vandalism requires a call and or photograph to local law enforcement.

How do you maintain the implied right to review and provide service within Jewish Cemeteries?
Jewish veterans often have standing, which is a legal term indicating members of a local or regional Post have the implied right to maintain the site of the graves of buried veterans and often the related family members. By observing various legal holidays and other publicized events, Post members often can establish a rapport and standing within each Jewish Cemetery.

Often a stone or other veteran memorial erected within the property of the cemetery allows for standing. An act of Congress set aside a date before Memorial Day when individuals can place flags on veterans’ gravesites.

Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day, is set aside as a day to honor living veterans and their families. While not an official act, family members and persons representing families of deceased veterans often place flags upon the grave sites.

MLK Day of Service is a day to provide meaningful actions to improve each community and educate citizens, often utilized to educate children and young adults as to the service provided by veterans. As an option, veteran grave sites are often cleaned or U.S. flags are placed as a sign of respect by the community.

It is an honor and mitzvah for veterans to remember each other for the sacrifice and service provided to the general public and to the Nation, that no others experience. Together we served and should be reposed forever in peace.

Volume 74. Number 3. 2020