One talented, young New Jersey Jewish professional found passion for a career path, and the inspiration to found a tech start-up that serves an unmet worldwide need, while working on a summer project—mapping and photographing a synagogue cemetery in Albany, New York.
Ari Sohn had worked in health care digital marketing and had spent time in Medellín, Colombia, working with local leaders to explore the feasibility of forming a JCC in the city. When he returned to the New York/New Jersey area in the summer of 2018, Mark Israel, former president and cemetery chairperson, asked him to help digitally map out the cemetery of Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob in Albany. Sohn agreed to assist and, while walking around the cemetery, noticed a bunch of fallen headstones. He decided to help clean up the cemetery, too.
With effort he picked up one headstone and saw the inscription, “Baby Jacobson, 1914,” which he found quite moving. He realized that prior to his effort, the location and perhaps the memory of this child might have been lost to the local community.
As he began to lift up other headstones, he thought to himself that “there ought to be an app” that people could use to track down the plots and records of different family or community members, so their history could be preserved.
Sohn kept recording, lifting and cleaning headstones, and when he restored one to an upright position, he discovered that it was for a woman who had died in 1852. Proud that he was able to restore a memory of someone who passed away a century and a half earlier, he sought to share his accomplishment with others. He filmed a short video of the restoration and posted it on his Facebook page.
Hundreds of Sohn’s friends “liked” the video and a few shared it with others. The video eventually reached someone who had never met Sohn but, after seeing the video, determined that he had to contact him. Jonny Ross messaged Sohn and mentioned that he knew of a historic Jewish cemetery in Manchester, England, that had been graffitied and desperately needed attention. Sohn expressed interest in helping and soon the two men decided to meet for coffee in Manhattan, to discuss cemetery mapping and restorations.
Ross, a successful finance professional based in New York, met with Sohn, and the two men recognized the importance and benefits of bringing cemeteries into the digital era. After several more business-planning meetings, PreservUs was born.
PreservUs was founded as a for-profit technology firm that “digitizes” cemeteries, so that users anywhere in the world can virtually visit cemeteries, get directions to a grave, search for plots and names and view personal and genealogical records on a specific person. As Sohn described, PreservUs “is Google Maps for cemeteries.” The company also performs volunteer work and helps organize cemetery clean-up efforts, totalling more than 15,000 headstones to date.
As Ross explained the mission of PreservUs: “From a business perspective we saw an opportunity to upgrade record-keeping systems and help cemetery boards and individuals access the benefits of digital technology. At the same time, we could do some good, by helping preserve and honor dignity and memories, inspire interest in the past and promote continuity and connection to history, especially in an era when people often move far away from home.”
Since PreservUs launched in March of 2019, they’ve helped with cemetery digitizations and volunteer clean-ups in different countries and for cemeteries affiliated with different faiths. While the majority of the cemeteries Sohn has helped clean and digitize thus far are Jewish, he has also worked in Catholic, Chinese and military cemeteries as well. He sees the ethos of PreservUs to bring its tools and expertise to help all people broaden access to the burial places of their communities.
Sohn stated that the fees PreservUs charges are based on the “health check” they conduct of the particular cemetery, which assesses the size of the burial grounds, number of headstones and their current state of repair.
One cemetery clean-up that PreservUs is actively involved in right now is the restoration and digitization of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vermont, a project initiated by a local teen. Netanel Crispe is a senior at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, a resident of Danby, Vermont, and founder and director of the East Poultney Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project.
As Crispe explained to The Jewish Link: “Vermont’s oldest Jewish cemetery is in desperate need of repair. Unmarked and neglected for years, many of its 60-83 headstones lay face down in the dirt, fragmented, broken and illegible from wear. As one of the last surviving testaments to the history of Vermont’s first Jewish community, this site must be preserved. Through my project, I am working to fully restore every headstone in the cemetery as well as properly document and digitize their location, while sharing the personal stories of those buried so that they may be preserved in perpetuity.”
As Sohn stated, “PreservUs wants to change the narrative, and show that millennials have an interest in cemeteries. PreservUs believes that we are in the life industry, preserving vibrant memories and stories, and honoring families and communities, by expanding access to their shared histories.”
To learn more about PreservUs, you can visit their website at www.preservus.com or visit their Instagram page, @preservus.
By Harry Glazer