JCBA video spotlights the cemeteries of western Pennsylvania
“In three short years, we’ve addressed decades of deferred maintenance. This is a tremendous success for Jewish Pittsburgh — the cemeteries have never looked better.”
Over a montage of tombstones and seemingly ancient black-and-white photographs, Barry Rudel, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, begins his narration.
“In the Jewish experience here in Pittsburgh and throughout western Pennsylvania, synagogues and organizations have come and gone — Jewish populations have shifted; whole communities have ceased to exist,” Rudel says. “In some cases, the only visible evidence of the Hill District shul, the Fraternal Society or maybe even the entire mining or mill-town’s Jewish community is represented in the one element of our Jewish tradition that can’t be merged, downsized, sold, closed or abandoned.
“Our Jewish cemeteries are sacred final resting places,” he adds, “and it is a privilege for the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh (JCBA) to own and/or manage so many of them.”
The hour-long video, titled “Road Trip: The Jewish Cemeteries of Western PA” and available for viewing on JCBA’s website, is enthralling stuff — and caps three years of significant growth and maturation for the JCBA.
Let’s go back to 2020. As of that year, JCBA owned or managed just 11 cemeteries; five of them were abandoned, and 9,000 graves were under the group’s management, Rudel told the Chronicle.
Fast forward to 2023. JCBA now owns or manages 41 cemeteries — none of them abandoned — and 22,000 graves are under the group’s management.
“In three short years, we’ve addressed decades of deferred maintenance,” Rudel said. “This is a tremendous success for Jewish Pittsburgh — the cemeteries have never looked better.”
Rudel isn’t trafficking in hyperbole. The group has transformed from a quiet organization with a few cemeteries in need of work, to a powerhouse backed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and that has cleaned up dozens of sites.
Skip Grinberg, a JCBA leader and a member of the group’s executive committee, remembers the late 2010s well.
“It just was a sleepy organization,” Grinberg said. “There was no growth plan.”
“Barry has just kind of run with it — he seems to have a passion for cemeteries and he’s done a great job,” Grinberg added. “Now, it’s starting to snowball positively. That’s the growth story people see.”
To illustrate, Grinberg points to Beth Abraham, a cemetery with more than 4,000 graves. JCBA took control of the site and poured money in for maintenance and improvements that were long needed.
“Now,” Grinberg said, “we really like the way these cemeteries look.”
James Wagner sits on JCBA’s board and was the chairman of the task force that started the organization’s dramatic rebirth. The work of the last three years is the fulfillment of a big wish, he said.
“It is with great satisfaction to see that our task force efforts are reaching this success,” Wagner said. “The Federation recognized that many of our region’s Jewish cemeteries were in need of assistance, and they convened to develop a plan.
“Under Barry Rudel’s leadership and an active working JCBA board, our Jewish responsibility for the caretaking of our cemeteries is being fulfilled,” he added.
“Honoring those who came before us is a core value in Judaism,” said Jeff Finkelstein, the Jewish Federation’s president and CEO. “We’re really proud of the immense progress the JCBA has made since the Jewish Federation began to help its board to create a new strategic plan for the organization and provided significant funding to implement the plan almost eight years ago.”
Rudel, who becomes visibly passionate when talking about the work his team does at cemeteries throughout western Pennsylvania, is quick to point the spotlight in other directions. He raves about the work ethic, for example, of Shelly Parver from the Jewish Federation, a key contributor. And Parver is not alone.
“The very individuals and families who donate and help have made the difference,” Rudel said.
Then, there’s that video. Professionally shot and produced, it paints a stirring portrait of Jewish museums of memory in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Filmmaker Jim Ledoux helped work on the project, shooting live scenes at cemeteries, as well as archival material, throughout the region.
“The thing I love most about my job as a director of photography is that every day is a new opportunity to learn and discover,” Ledoux said.
“Through my involvement with the JCBA project I developed a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and the impact that the Jewish community has had on life and trade in western Pennsylvania,” he continued. “Above all, this project highlights the respect, dignity and high value the Jewish community places on preserving the legacy and memory of those who helped shape and define this region.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.