What is the project?
Philadelphia is home to numerous historic Jewish cemeteries. However, many of them are at risk due to age, disrepair or neglect.
The Friends of Jewish Cemeteries is an volunteer-led group that came together with a shared interest in securing these sacred places: to preserve the legacy of those at rest there and sustain them for the future. We have defined a pilot project at Har Nebo Cemetery to explore and produce a viable, scalable and adaptable plan that will inspire others of all faiths to undertake similar work.
This inaugural project is a special initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Why Har Nebo Cemetery?
As one of Philadelphia’s oldest and largest Jewish cemeteries, which is nearly full, Har Nebo offers an excellent example of the need for restoration. The superb comprehensive research done there recently, identifying every grave by surname and location, also makes it of interest to family genealogists.
What was the scope of the pilot project?
The 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, we used gravel, soil, grass seeding and special stone cleaner.
The pilot repaired a section of 33 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 will be provided for volunteers to ensure the safety of the monuments and all involved.
At the conclusion of the pilot project, the team produced a how-to guide with its learned best practices, documentation of its work and analysis of its outcomes. The multimedia guide will be available to groups of all faiths facing similar situations.
Will you notify descendants?
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.
Why does the project require work beyond clearing trash and improving the landscape?
Acute disrepair at Har Nebo and many other older cemeteries translates to fallen stones weighing 500-750 pounds as well as shifting, unstable ground. These circumstances can lead to damaged or destroyed markers and a dangerous environment for visitors. Our project will specifically address and document the historical restoration so others have a tangible example of a sustainable solution.
Why doesn’t a cemetery owner or families of those buried there assume these responsibilities themselves?
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. 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 already providing support for this work.
Can you repair my family’s graves at Har Nebo?
This project will only work on headstones within the designated section. Sites outside the pilot area should be handled with the cemetery owner.
Does my donation go directly to the project?
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.
What is the role of 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.
Who is leading the project?
The project was conceived and launched by people committed to sustaining Jewish heritage. The Leadership Committee is Addie Lewis Klein, Steve Rosenberg 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.
What will be the next cemetery chosen for restoration?
At the project’s conclusion, 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.
The how-to guide that we will produce, capturing the scope of work and our outcomes, will be designed as a blueprint on how to replicate this initiative.