For more than a half century, Sanford Epstein has been a guardian of an important aspect of the Jewish community in Essex, Union, and Morris counties.
His title is superintendent of Newark’s Jewish cemeteries, and he is responsible for the upkeep of 14 Jewish burial grounds in Newark and Elizabeth, as well as ones in Kenilworth, Bridgewater, South Plainfield, and Mount Freedom.
Many of the properties he takes care of date back to the 19th century, when his grandfather started a cemetery business that is now in its third generation. Epstein sees himself as a preservationist of priceless history.
“There are a lot of big names among the thousands of people buried here,” he told NJ Jewish News on a Sept. 10 tour through the vintage cemeteries on Newark’s South Orange Avenue. “They were very important people in the city of Newark. But their shuls are now out of business.”
In an annual tradition, members of the Jewish community are invited to visit the gravesites on Sept. 23.
Newark Cemetery Visiting Day, sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ, is intended to provide safe visits for family members, and to showcase both the success and the challenges of keeping up the cemeteries’ maintenance.
“We call the police and alert the community so that people feel it is safe and comfortable to go visit their loved ones,” said CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick. “A good part of our community is from the Newark area and has family and connection to people who are buried there.”
Maintenance at the old cemeteries can be problematic for Epstein and his staff of 15 men.
Some graves date back to the 1800s. But all too few have blue or red stickers indicating that families are subsidizing the perpetual care that can cover Epstein’s cost of simple maintenance.
When the synagogues and burial societies that ran the cemeteries closed down, maintenance of the historic cemeteries became a community responsibility.
Thanks to a trust fund established in 1994 by the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation, for example, the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ helps maintain the Beth El cemetery and assists in rehabilitating and making repairs at the other Jewish cemeteries in Newark.
“It is imperative to maintain and have respect for our Jewish roots and we believe the cemeteries are important to maintain,” Gorelick said.
Still, the effort faces financial challenges.
“There are limits on the amount of foundation monies we have access to right now,” said Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, who is president of the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation and has served on its board since its creation. Interest from foundation investments are used to fix damaged areas and upright fallen tombstones, Kushner said.
“We are doing our best, given the limitations of our resources to keep up with the toll time takes on our cemeteries,” he said. “The Jewish community of Greater MetroWest is starting discussions on how to figure out a long-term plan because our monies are going to run out eventually.”
Epstein inspects each of his properties nearly every day to make sure weeds are pulled, grass is trimmed, and tombstones are not uprooted.
“I care about these things,” said Epstein. “I’ve been doing this all my life. I really do care. I don’t know why I care, but I care.”
His grandfather started the business in the early 1900s, then passed it on to his son and daughter-in-law. “Then the old-timers passed on, and now I’m the only one. My kids can’t work here full time. They have to make a living like everybody else,” he said.
There are times when his job faces special challenges.
“There was a serious accident over here,” he said, pointing to a six-foot break in the low fence surrounding the Grove Street Cemetery.
On June 28, a car that “must have been doing about 100 miles an hour” leaped the curb and plowed onto land just inches from the first row of graves, he said. “Two people got killed.”
Nearly three months later the fence and adjacent tombstones remain in their current state as Epstein awaits insurance compensation for the damages.