The annual visitation day at the historic Jewish cemeteries in Newark, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest (Federation), has been impacted over the last few years by extreme weather and pandemic-related restrictions. According to Ira Epstein, who manages the Newark and Elizabeth Jewish cemeteries with his brother Bennett, “many factors, including the weather, vandalism, and toppled tombstones impacting other stones” are also accountable for multiple overturned tombstones.
Every year, on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Federation collaborates with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and the Newark and East Orange police departments to provide additional security during the Annual Newark Cemetery Visiting Day. Due to safety concerns, the cemeteries that receive extra security measures during the High Holidays include B’nai Abraham and Union Field, Grove Street and 20th Street, Talmud Torah, and McClellan Street Cemeteries.
Although, as last year, the weather was not favorable, the gates were still open on Sunday when guards were present. Two Federation volunteers were recording the names of visitors and added me to the list. Eager to visit the graves of my departed loved ones, I stood at the gate waiting for the armed protection to arrive so I could enter the cemetery grounds.
Due to the delay caused by waiting for the guards and the heavy rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia, I swiftly placed stones at my grandparents’ graves and photographed their resting place, along with other relatives’ graves for those who couldn’t visit.
According to Epstein, Talmud Torah, with 4,500 graves, “is in the best shape” of all the cemeteries listed. He said, “One hundred [tomb]stones were picked up two summers ago and this year another third, with about 100 still down.” With the help of Federation, they are about halfway through placing placards on the grounds to locate graves at Grove and 20th Street.
After leaving Talmud Torah, I quickly made my way to McClellan Street, on the other side of Newark, to pay my respects to my loved ones at Gomel Chesed Cemetery and Gomel Chesed Annex 1, where the guards remained stationed.
For a short time, the rain subsided, granting me a glimpse beyond a colossal dumpster located on the premises by Gomel Chesed Annex 1, where my aunt and uncle are laid to rest. The area was saturated with water, which was unsurprising given the heavy rainfall. The sight of the overturned graves, however, resembled a scene right out of a horror movie.
Epstein said, “In that area, in the Elizabeth section, there are about 40-50 stones down, waiting to be restored upright.”
At the McClellan Street cemeteries, the sight of multiple toppled tombstones, whatever the cause, was horrifying.
Epstein suggested that one of the issues is that many, if not all, cemetery societies are defunct, and the original members had “no game plan,” as the newer cemeteries do now, to ensure the monuments do not fall over and knock down others. They didn’t have trust funds, which only started in the 1970s and 1980s.
Fortunately, they have seen “great success in Newark with the help of MetroWest and are working on restoring more tombstones to upright positions as quickly as possible,” according to Epstein. Then again, he cautioned, “MetroWest has a budget like everyone else and can only do so much so quickly.
According to Federation’s website, they stepped in to provide emergency funding, including replacing destroyed and ineffective fencing by building high fences around the cemeteries in order to prevent vandalism in 2018, and removing trees in 2020, enabling proper maintenance, and lifting and resetting the headstones.
“Lifting the stones,” Epstein said, “is time-consuming and expensive, at about $300-$500 per stone, maybe less for a significant number in one area.”
Benjamin Mann, chief planning officer, MetroWest Federation, commented on Sunday’s Newark Cemetery Visiting Day, “Helping members of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community connect with their loved ones is so powerful. One 88 year old woman from South Orange told me she was originally from Newark and graduated from Weequahic High School, and that she knew her grandparents were buried in the Grove Street Jewish cemetery. We looked up their names in the online database and a few minutes later I was able to help her find her grandparents’ gravesite. She was filled with emotion, so happy and grateful. Neither of us minded standing in the rain at that special moment.”
Through the help of MetroWest and private donations, they are hoping all the stones will be restored over the next few years. For further information or to donate, contact Federation at (973) 929-3096.
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist. A staff writer at The Jewish Link, Sharon is a people person and born storyteller who feels that everyone is entitled to a legacy. Sharon was acknowledged by two authors in their recently published books and is looking forward to the publication of her family history book.