Philadelphia is home to numerous historic Jewish cemeteries. From the 1890’s to today there is a wonderful legacy of Judaism in our region.
The Friends of Jewish Cemeteries (FJC), a special volunteer initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, takes small steps forward to help make the poor conditions better.
By investing time and resources, tangible results are achieved. Check out the community reports (right side of FJC landing page).
As two of Philadelphia’s oldest and largest Jewish cemeteries, which are nearly full, Har Nebo and Har Jehuda offers an excellent example of the need for restoration.
The superb comprehensive research done at Har Nebo, and in progress at Har Jehuda, identifies every grave by surname and location, also making it of interest to family genealogists. Also, in both locations there are dedicated volunteer leaders to provide support.
The Har Nebo headstone pilot was grounded in the protocols of professional cemetery preservation: leveling the ground, removing overgrowth, lifting and cleaning unstable and fallen stones, and resetting them upon a solid base. Wherever needed, gravel, crushed stone, soil, grass seeding and special stone cleaner were utilized.
The two pilots repaired a section of 60 headstones, chosen because it typifies the most common aging cemetery problems and has easy access for equipment. Work was performed by a cemetery conservation professional. All professional workers who entered the site provided a certificate of insurance for the Jewish Federation and for Har Nebo Cemetery. Training was provided for volunteers to ensure the safety of the monuments, and all involved.
At the conclusion of the pilot projects, the team produced a Community Report. This documentation is available to groups of all faiths facing similar situations.
We attempted to reach families in several ways. The Jewish Federation posted detailed notices on its website and in the Jewish Exponent. The project’s volunteers also contacted genealogical groups to provide research.
Acute disrepair at Har Nebo, Har Jehuda and many other older cemeteries translates to fallen stones weighing 400-1200+ pounds as well as shifting, unstable ground. These circumstances can lead to damaged or destroyed markers and a dangerous environment for visitors.
These pilot projects address and document the historical preservation and conservation so others have a tangible example of a sustainable solution.
The problems with historic cemeteries are not unique to the Jewish community. Some have been ignored and forgotten or only recently discovered.
And families, many of whom have moved away, are often unaware they have relatives buried there. Those cemeteries that still have clear ownership rarely have incoming revenue and often only have budget to cover mowing grass which could be done with greater frequency and care.
The large cemetery corporations have little interest in mature cemeteries since they have few remaining plots to sell. We are fortunate that many people living in the Delaware Valley and beyond who believe in the importance of a community caring for its own history are providing support for this work.
This project will only work on headstones within the designated section. Sites outside the pilot area should be handled with the cemetery owner.
100% of the donation goes to this project. For every $1 donated, 85 cents goes to the project’s on-site labor costs, fees, materials and equipment. The remaining 15 cents cover resources and services, including donation administration and marketing, provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The Jewish Federation is providing the infrastructure – placement on its website, donation administration, marketing, accounting and other services – that the Friends of Jewish Cemeteries could not establish independently. We also have an experienced staff liaison to share professional insights and guidance. Partnership with the Jewish Federation, the champion of engaging the regional Jewish community, is critical to our success.
The project was conceived and launched by people committed to sustaining Jewish heritage. The Leadership Committee is Jeffrey Lasday and Robin Schatz, Jewish Federation; Jared Solomon, PA State Representative; Dr. Dennis Montagna, Chief of the Monument Research and Preservation Program, National Park Service; and Rich Blumberg, Community Volunteer and President, World Sales Solutions, LLC. There is also a Community Steering Committee.
The leadership team will assess realistic strategies to restore additional properties in the region. An important criterion will be volunteer leadership to continue this endeavor at the respective cemeteries.
Currently activities, such as clean-ups are taking place at Har Nebo and Har Jehuda.
The Community Report provides insights into the scope of work and outcomes, is designed as a blueprint on how to replicate this initiative.