‘Doing what communities do’ — taking care of holy ground

‘Doing what communities do’ — taking care of holy ground

Project aims to rehabilitate Trenton’s Jewish cemeteries

The Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project aims to restore stones like the one toppled over between these two graves. (Photo courtesy Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project)
The Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project aims to restore stones like the one toppled over between these two graves. (Photo courtesy Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project)

As Jewish communities evolve, old congregations and communal organizations typically lose members and may close down or relocate.

But what always remain behind are the cemeteries.

On Pitman Avenue in Hamilton, less than four miles from the State Capitol in Trenton, are five adjacent Jewish cemeteries, where members of some of those old synagogues and organizations are buried — and all those burial grounds are in a state of disrepair.

Now, several former city residents have formed the Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project (GTJCP), in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. Their aim: to raise funds and rehabilitate these neglected burial grounds.

“The tombstones are falling over, and the graves are collapsing — it is a shanda” (Yiddish for “shame”), said project member Lynne Azarchi, a West Windsor resident. The first step? “We are making it clean, getting rid of the weeds,” she said.

In an effort to draw more Jews to their cause, the GTJCP will hold its inaugural event on Thursday, May 2, at 6 p.m. in the offices of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville. Attendees will hear about the conditions in the cemeteries and the need for restoration and preservation. Presenters will include a national expert on cemetery restoration and a local monument company representative familiar with the Trenton cemeteries who can address the work that will be involved in the project.

The honoree will be local Jewish historian and project member Arthur Finkle, who has done much to preserve the legacy of the Trenton Jewish

The organizers’ goal is to raise $250,000 to fix up the cemeteries and another $250,000 as an endowment for perpetual care and repair.

Rehabilitating a cemetery is one of the highest forms of tzedakah, said Steven Sacks-Wilner, a member of Princeton Chabad, “because since the people have already died, you can’t expect any benefit from it.” His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Joseph D. Kaplan, originally of Belarus, was the head of Dr. Herzl’s Zion Hebrew School in Trenton, predecessor of Abrams Hebrew Academy, now in Yardley, Pa.

“In the old country, the community would have come together to take care of a Jewish cemetery — it’s holy ground,” said Sacks-Wilner. “We’re just doing what Jewish communities do.”

The five orphan cemeteries belonged to two synagogues, Ahavath Israel and Anshe Emet, as well as  the fraternal order B’rith Sholem; Workmen’s Circle Branch 90; and Trenton Young Judaea Association. Other “orphan” cemeteries, not currently part of the project, are close by. Mort Cohen, a Princeton resident and member of Young Israel of Lawrenceville, said, “I would like to see an association of Jewish cemeteries, so the ones that are still alive can take the others under their wings.”

Sacks-Wilner came to the project after helping to rehabilitate the Chabad Cemetery — transforming it, he said, from “a jungle” to a place that is “beautiful and pristine.” One day he was there and decided to visit nearby family graves. His great-grandfather Rabbi Israel Stein, who came from Minsk, is buried in Anshe Emet Cemetery. His grandfather Louis Nachum Aryeh Leib Wilner, who had a bakery on Fall Street in Trenton, died in the 1918 flu epidemic and is buried in the Workmen’s Circle cemetery.

View through damaged cemetery fence at grave of Percy Nitzberg. (Photo courtesy Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project)

Sacks-Wilner said when he visits Israel Stein’s grave he brings “a battery-powered hedge cutter so I can see the headstone. It is a 6-foot headstone, but the vines have completely overgrown it.” He realized that the cemeteries where his family members are buried “need the same loving care as the Chabad cemetery. There was no one taking care of those cemeteries.”

Congregation Beth Chaim member and Trenton native Gary Hofing grew up at Har Sinai Temple. At his mother’s request, he took on the task of caring for his relatives’ graves after his father died. His paternal grandparents, Herman and Sadie (Zoltick) Hofing, as well as his father’s older brother, Robert, are buried in the Anshe Emet Cemetery. His father’s younger brother, Edward, is buried in the Young Judaea Cemetery. His mother’s Zoltick relatives are buried in the orphan cemeteries.

When Hofing visited the Anshe Emet and Young Judaea cemeteries, he said, he was appalled at their condition, and set out to refurbish the family graves. “I couldn’t believe how bad it was. I saw a lot of toppled-over stones, overgrown landscaping, a casket let loose, and a hole in front of the stone — a lot of gravesites in just terrible condition.”

Hofing read Finkle’s blog advocating for the repair of the cemeteries and eventually found his way to the project.

Princeton resident Albert Stark has family roots in Trenton going back to 1878, when his great-grandfather Samuel Meyer Stark became the city’s first Jewish religious leader. He ministered to nine families — the core of what in 1883 became Brothers of Israel Synagogue.

Stark became interested in Trenton’s Jewish cemeteries after his father died in 1994 and his Uncle Amiel began talking to him about his family.

Looking for more information on where his great-grandfather was buried, Stark sought help from Rabbi Howard Hirsch, longtime religious leader of Brothers of Israel synagogue. With the help of Hirsch’s secretary, Gloria Berger, Stark learned that his great-grandfather is interred in the Brothers of Israel cemetery at Liberty and Vroom Streets in Trenton. At first he couldn’t find the grave, but Berger was able to tell him the exact spot, and Stark returned with his son-in-law, Ryan Lilienthal. “We started going through the ivy that totally covered the grave, which had fallen over. We dusted it off, Ryan did a rubbing, and my great-grandfather’s name and date of death came up.”

Samuel Stark’s wife, Bessie, is buried in the orphan cemetery that was run by the B’rith Sholem Lodge.

Walking through the cemetery, Stark said, “I saw graves in terrible shape, fallen over, collapsed, and I said to myself, ‘This is terrible to see [the graves of] these people who were heroes who came to Trenton and made it possible for us to be who we are.’”

Stark hired someone to raise Samuel’s gravestone and put a plaque on it. “One thing led to another, and we decided we would raise money to do for the others what we had done for our own families.”

Another goal is to remove fencing between the five cemeteries and erect new fencing around their perimeter to replace the current damaged barriers.

The project has arranged for the photographing of the stones and recording details on them as part of an international effort to chronicle generations of Jews. They plan to use this information for educational projects about Trenton’s history.

At the May 2 event, Azarchi said, Finkle will be honored for his work preserving the history of the Trenton Jewish community. “We are thanking him for what he has done to honor our forefathers and foremothers,” she said. “We are here today because of them; we are here because of these people who were so brave, coming to this country with nothing, not speaking the language, having no money” and building homes, families, and community.

If you go

What: Greater Trenton Jewish Cemetery Project
Where: Stark & Stark, Lawrenceville
When: Thursday, May 2, 6 p.m.
Cost: Free, light refreshments will be served
RSVP: Required, contact Cari at 609-392-0092 or Cari@TheEagleGroup.org

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