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Cemetery guardian Sanford B. Epstein, 78
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Cemetery guardian Sanford B. Epstein, 78

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Sanford Epstein at a Newark cemetery in 2012.
Sanford Epstein at a Newark cemetery in 2012.

Sanford B. Epstein is now among those whose graves he painstakingly cared for throughout his life. 

The manager and caretaker of the Newark Jewish Cemeteries and Beth David Memorial Park, Epstein passed away on June 4 at age 78. 

Responsible for the upkeep of 14 Jewish burial grounds in Newark and Elizabeth, as well as cemeteries in Kenilworth, Bridgewater, South Plainfield, and Mount Freedom, Epstein was a go-between among surviving relatives and memorial parks that had often been left behind by communities that had moved elsewhere.

His involvement began as a family funerary business — one his grandfather started in the early 1900s. But many of the burial societies and synagogues that started cemeteries over 100 years ago, particularly in Newark, either no longer exist or moved to the suburbs. When the synagogues and burial societies that ran the cemeteries closed down, maintenance of the historic cemeteries became a community responsibility.

Through the current incarnation of his company, Sanford B. Epstein Inc., he maintained those graves whose care was paid for, and tried to do so as well for those with little or no support attached. 

Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, recalled that Epstein once told her not to call these old cemeteries “abandoned,” but rather “‘orphaned,’ because I care for them.” The CRC runs a committee that rehabilitates and maintains Newark’s historic Jewish cemeteries, and hosts an annual Newark Cemetery Visiting Day.

“It was an honor to work closely with Sandy Epstein, who was a modern-day tzadik,” Gorelick said. “Without his heartfelt commitment to them, the historical cemeteries might have turned to overgrown weeds. Many of them are in the heart of Newark in difficult areas. Sandy gave his heart to the cemeteries to ensure that those who went before us were remembered with dignity.”

In a 2012 interview with NJJN, Epstein said that he checked the properties nearly every day to make sure weeds were pulled, grass was trimmed, and tombstones remained upright.

“Our community will not be the same without Sandy Epstein,” said Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. Kushner is also the president of the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation, Inc. “For decades he did what we should have been doing. He cared for the resting places of our parents and grandparents. He assumed the responsibility of tending to thousands of graves, a Herculean task to be sure. And now his untimely passing leaves an enormous void. For me the question is clear: Will we have the love and dedication to continue his sacred work?” 

Epstein worried that the family legacy might end with him. In the 2012 interview, he said, “My kids can’t work here full time. They have to make a living like everybody else.” But in a phone conversation after his death, his daughter, Fern Epstein, confirmed that she and her two brothers, Bennett and Ira, would carry on his work. “My brothers and I have been and will continue to be involved in caring for Jewish cemeteries. I run Raiken Epstein Memorials in Kenilworth, a monument company, and my brothers run Sanford B. Epstein Inc., which handles all of the cemetery caretaking,” including those formerly run by now-defunct burial societies. 

She said one of them still goes through the cemeteries every day, just as their father did. And they will “absolutely” continue another of their father’s traditions. According to Fern, “My father made sure no Jewish person — even one in need of all services — went without a grave. He believed everyone had that right. We will continue doing that.”

At a recent Newark Cemetery Visiting Day, Ira Epstein was there to help direct visitors and explained why caring for the old cemeteries is so difficult. “Today, companies set up funds,” he said. “Every time they sell a grave, the funds are put aside for the roads, for the fences, for the upkeep of the cemetery. So even if people don’t pay for individual care for graves, there is money to maintain the cemetery. That’s not what happened [in Newark].”

Dozens of different burial societies or landsmanschaften — immigrant benefit societies — owned individual sections. “They were worried about what they were going to eat and about every disease known to mankind in 1910,” Ira Epstein said. “They didn’t care about what’s going to happen in 2010.”

Born and raised in Newark, Sanford Epstein graduated from West Side High School and served in the United States Army, stationed in Japan until 1957. After his father died, he and his mother formed I. Epstein and Son, a maintenance and caretaking company for the Union Field Cemeteries on South Orange Avenue and 14th Street in Newark. He later owned Marcy Maintenance Company and worked in the electronics industry through the 1970s. He ultimately formed Sanford B. Epstein, Inc., headquartered in Kenilworth, to take care of the South Orange Avenue and Grove Street Jewish cemeteries and the McClellan Street cemeteries.

Along with his sons, he was the manager and caretaker of Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth, the United Co-Operative North Arlington Jewish Cemeteries, and the Samptown South Plainfield Jewish Cemeteries. He and his sons are the management caretakers for the Oheb Shalom Cemetery in Hillside, Temple B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery in Elizabeth, Temple Sholom Cemetery in Bridgewater, and Mt. Nebo Cemetery in Totowa and the burial caretakers for the Mt. Freedom Hebrew Cemetery in Randolph. 

Epstein and his daughter acquired an existing monument company in Newark to create Raiken Epstein Memorials, Inc., in 1982. Now headquartered in Kenilworth, its Newark offices open in the fall for the Newark Cemetery Visiting Day.

Epstein lived in Parsippany-Morris Plains, where he was affiliated with the Conservative synagogue Adath Shalom of Morris Plains. He was also a past president of the Springfield Lions Club and the East Orange Lions Club. 

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Gertrude (Steller); his children, Fern Epstein and Steven Bukowiecki, Bennett and Jackie Scura Epstein, and Ira and Roxanne Epstein; a sister, Toby Handsman; and seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister Esther D. Schwarz and his brother, Morton.

Following funeral services in Livingston on June 8, he was buried at Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth.

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