On a wintry Sunday morning in late March, Alan Coen strolled through Gomel Chesed Cemetery and reflected on its meaning to his life.
“I think about family, our heritage, and what you gain from family,” he said as he looked at the tombstones. “Basically, I remember lost loved ones, what they meant to me and what they taught me. I remember the loss, but I remember the good points.”
For much of his adult life, Coen, a retired attorney from Elizabeth, has devoted time and attention to the Jewish burial ground in Newark that is now in its 125th year.
Once a month, he and a half-dozen others on the cemetery’s board of directors gather inside a house on its grounds off McClellan Avenue and Routes 1-9 to take stock of needed repairs.
“We have constantly maintained the cemetery, but a lot of stones were installed decades ago, before people understood the proper way of building foundations, and some of the foundations have been collapsing,” said Al Schimkowitz of Cranford, the group’s financial secretary. “We want to give them a base that will last considerably longer than the ones that date back decades.”
At age 90, Irving Tobin, also of Cranford, maintains close ties with his roots in Elizabeth and visits Gomel Chesed Cemetery on occasion.
“The cemetery is very well kept up. It is clean, orderly, and very well taken care of,” he said. “When I go there I see people from my youth or from my middle age, and a couple of friends who were in the Second World War with me.”
If the group has an informal historian, she is Roslyn Schwartzberg. In the early 20th century, her parents moved to her hometown of Elizabeth from Russia and Poland. Her father was a member of a men’s lodge called the Independent Order of Ohav Zedek that was dedicated to resettlement of the Jewish immigrants in the Newark-Elizabeth area.
It met regularly in an Elizabeth building called the Labor Lyceum, which housed everything from basketball games to political campaign rallies.
“If you belonged to the lodge, you got a plot,” Schwartzberg said, “but only if you were a man.”
The lodge and the cemetery association it formed “didn’t ask people if they were Reform or Orthodox or converted,” she said. But until sometime in the early 20th century, its graves were for men only.
Neither 93-year-old Schwartzberg nor any of the other currently active members knows when the association voted to accept women for burial. The group’s original minutes were written in Yiddish, and although Schwartzberg volunteered to translate them into English, her translated manuscript has been missing for several years.
“The cemetery is the home of my mother, my father, my sister, and me. I also have dear friends and relatives who are buried here. In recognition of their having existed, I believe they deserve a certain amount of dignity. I believe the cemetery needs to look good, it needs to be cared for, and it needs to be available for those who need it,” she said.
Board member Ruth Strashun of Elizabeth agreed. “My father was connected and my husband was connected to the cemetery. It is community work and I feel relief when I go to visit my family. Most of my family is buried here.”
The current president of the Gomel Chesed cemetery association, Gordon Haas, is also chair of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The CRC runs an annual Newark Cemetery Visiting Day, usually around the High Holy Days.
Unlike some of those other historic Jewish cemeteries in Newark and Elizabeth, which have been orphaned by time, “we are still there,” Haas said of Gomel Chesed. “We take care of it, and we take care of the house on the grounds where a caretaker and his family live. We have high-powered lights, and because there are people on site it helps us prevent vandalism situations.”
Haas became involved in the late 1980s when a fellow member of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth approached him.
“He said, ‘We have a cemetery that is almost 100 years old and there are no young people on the board,”’ said Haas. “I guess I was young in those days. So he asked if I was interested and I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
With dues costing a modest $15 a year, the members of the cemetery association are eager to enlist younger people to perpetuate their efforts. “They feel their lives are way too busy,” Coen lamented. “Our lives are busy, too, but you know what? You’ve got to make time for important things.”
Although members feel proud of their hard work and the cemetery’s long life span, they have made no plans to formally commemorate its founding 125 years ago.
“I think there should be,” said Schimkowitz. “We keep it going with a board and a bank account, and we are happy to do it. We are very proud that we are functioning. It is important we maintain it. But we are concerned about younger generations. Many don’t live in the area anymore, but even for those who do, it is hard to get families involved.”