Of the 78 Jewish cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania, 11 are classified as “abandoned.”
But that doesn’t mean they are forsaken.
To the contrary, they continue to be maintained and well-tended, thanks to the dedication of the donors and volunteers who support the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh.
The JCBA, in its present form, was established in 1992, but its roots can be traced to the late 19th century, according to its president Jonathan Schachter.
The organization serves two primary functions: to provide free burials for the needy and indigent; and to take care of those cemeteries that are no longer managed by the congregations to which they were connected, as is the case when a congregation dissolves.
“If a congregation has a cemetery, and it will be closing, or if it’s closed, usually it is the cemetery board that takes care of it,” Schachter said. “But sometimes, on some of the cemetery boards, the people running them are no longer able to take care of them, because of their age. Or, they decide it would be better if someone else took care of it.”
Maintenance of cemeteries is one of the prime concerns of congregants in the process of closing their synagogues, according to Susan Melnick, director of the Small Town Jewish History Project, which works to preserve the documents, artifacts, and oral histories of those congregations.
“When we are talking to people at the shuls, one of their main concerns is the maintenance of their cemetery,” Melnick said.
Cemetery maintenance includes grass cutting, tree trimming, snowplowing, and repairing walls and steps as needed, Schachter said.
In addition to the 11 “abandoned” cemeteries the JCBA manages, it is also responsible for the upkeep of the two cemeteries in Shaler that are used to bury those Jews who cannot afford their own arrangements.
Neglected Jewish cemeteries have been reported extensively in the media, from Queens, N.Y., to East Lost Angeles. But there are no Jewish cemeteries in Pittsburgh “that are completely abandoned,” Schachter believes. He visits many of the cemeteries in Pittsburgh — even those not under his care — on a regular basis, and visits those that are under his care at least four times a year.
“Are there are some to my eye that look like they could use more care and upkeep? Yes. But none are in horrible shape. All of them are taken care of one way or another,” he said.
The JCBA contracts with a maintenance staff that works full time, and is funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, some foundations and through donations that the organization solicits from the community twice a year.
“We depend upon the kindness of strangers,” Schachter said.
In addition to tending to leaves and snow and grass, the contractors are also on call to right headstones from time to time.
“Sometimes they fall because of natural causes, and sometimes they are pushed over,” he said.
Vandalism is a recurring problem, Schachter noted.
“We just had some significant vandalism at Beth Abraham Cemetery [in Carrick] in the middle of June,” he said. “There were 19 headstones that were turned over. Some were smashed. And four went over a 12-foot high wall that we had just re-built.”
While Schachter filed a police report, so far no one has been charged with the crime, he said.
The JCBA is currently in the process of repairing the damage, and replacing the headstones that cannot be repaired. The broken headstones will then be buried on the grounds.
Other recent vandalism has included graffiti depicting backward swastikas on two pillars leading into Shaare Zedeck Cemetery, which is adjacent to Beth Abraham. The graffiti has been removed, and a police report was filed.
Schachter has been taking care of Pittsburgh’s “abandoned” cemeteries since 2007, and although he is a volunteer, he says it is a full-time job.
“I take great satisfaction in what I do, maintaining something that needs to be taken care of, out of respect for those buried there, and as part of our Jewish tradition,” he said.
But the imperative of maintaining cemeteries even goes beyond respect for the dead.
“One way of preserving information about who lived in these towns [that formerly had significant Jewish populations], is if we know who died there,” Melnick said. “In some cases, the only record we have is the names on the gravestones. The information on the stones is so very vital to people who are interested in their families, and we want to preserve that.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.