Elaine Bornstein stood with her son Alan under their umbrellas at the grave of her uncle, whom neither had ever met.
“Eighty-five years he’s been gone, and he still has people coming to see him. That’s something,” said Elaine. Max Kessler, born in 1905, died in 1925 and was buried in a cemetery on Grove Street in Newark. “My mother took my sister and me, the whole family, aunts, uncles, for as long as I can remember. We couldn’t not come.”
He drowned in Coney Island, saving a child, according to Elaine. Despite his short life, Elaine named Alan for him — both are Mendel in Hebrew.
Elaine, who grew up in Newark and then lived in Union, now lives in East Hanover. She said the family was relatively new to the country when Max died. “They weren’t prepared with cemeteries. They did what they could.” Others in the family are buried nearby, on South Orange Avenue and McClellan Street.
The Bornsteins were among the few hundred people who participated in the 22nd Annual Newark Cemetery Visiting Day, held Sept. 12. The day is sponsored by the cemetery committee of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Visitors come to tend neglected graves and honor ancestors — under the watchful eye of extra police posted for the occasion in neighborhoods grown gritty in the years since Newark was home to a thriving Jewish community of some 80,000.
“Every year we get more and more people looking for personal history,” said Carol Blaustein, officer manager for Sanford B. Epstein, Inc., which now administers the cemeteries.
The five cemeteries, originally owned independently, were first used around 1870. Most graves date from the first half of the 20th century. Jews began to migrate to the suburbs north and west of Newark in the mid-20th century, an exodus that reached its climax following the city’s race riots of 1967.
The cemeteries are crowded in places; some graves are well cared for, with flowers or stones placed by relatives or friends. In other places, large stones have fallen over, and vines have overtaken the stones.
There are still grave sites available, according to Ira Epstein, whose grandfather started what is now Sanford B. Epstein Inc., headquartered in Kenilworth. About 15-20 people are buried in Newark’s Jewish cemeteries each year. Several years ago Elaine Bornstein’s mother was buried in the cemetery on South Orange Avenue, with the rest of her family.
Ira Epstein, son of Sanford, sat in the former Raiken Memorials Inc. office on Grove Street — which opens once a year in concert with the annual safe visiting day — offering directions and information to visitors.
Paul Klein of Maplewood was among them. He came to visit the graves of his grandparents, Antonia and Adolf Klein, in a cemetery on Grove Street. He recited Kaddish and spent some time thinking about them. He comes because his father, buried in Clifton, asked him to before he died.
And because he wants to. “I was close with these relatives, especially my grandmother,” Klein said. “I try to remember things about her and not talk to her, but it’s close. And I remember some funny things about her. She had a big impact on my life; I’ve always missed her.”
Klein, 62, had another mission. Like many visitors, he is on a genealogical hunt. “We have a family tree, and I wanted to get that straight.” His search has taken him as far away as Hungary, as he has discovered kinsmen from Russia to Texas.
Ruth Ball of Somerset visited the cemetery in part because her father, in Florida, could not come, but also “to learn a little about my history.”
She belongs to the Gombin Society, an organization for people who can trace their family roots to Gombin, Poland. She was disappointed to learn she had missed seeing “cousin Phil,” her father’s first cousin, who had visited earlier in the day.
“We’re very focused on rebuilding cemeteries in Europe,” she said, as she snapped photos of the stones. “But we have our own cemeteries here that are messed up.” She would like to see what she can do to help the situation.
Ira Epstein explained the economics of neglect.
“Today, companies set up funds. Every time they sell a grave, the funds are put aside for the roads, for the fences, for the upkeep of the cemetery,” he said. “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 landsmenschaften — homeland societies — owned individual sections. “They were worried about what they were going to eat and about every disease known to mankind in 1910,” Epstein said. “They didn’t care about what’s going to happen in 2010.”
Debbie Ginsburg, administrative assistant at the CRC, explained that the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation is a joint project of the CRC and the Jewish Community Foundation. It was created to oversee the Beth El cemeteries and often helps with projects to beautify the Newark cemeteries. She did point out how much of the labor Sandy Epstein still does on a volunteer basis. “We’re impressed by the amount of tzedaka he does. He does it because there’s no other choice.”
Although she couldn’t be there that day, probably the most knowledgeable person about the cemeteries in Newark is Alice Perkins Gould of West Caldwell, who spent seven years with a corps of volunteers compiling a painstaking history of the Jews of Newark, told in large part through the graves. Her book, The Old Jewish Cemeteries of Newark, was published in 2005 by Avotaynu.
Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield is president of the Beth El Memorial Park Foundation, which helps to organize the annual cemetery visiting day. The foundation, he said, “is a sacred trust. The cemeteries of Newark are a testament to the Jewish community that came before us. They helped pave the way for today’s Jewish community so today’s Jewish community might be as healthy as we are today.
“By visiting the graves of our ancestors we not merely honor their memories but affirm their dreams.”
Edith Oxfeld of South Orange, 90, visited her own parents and then stopped in the office to see if she could find the burial sites of her husband’s relatives. An employee took her to their graves, and a visitor caught up with her shortly afterward.
“I just thought about history with my husband, and my husband’s stories about them,” she said. “My husband used to visit with me but he’s gone. So now I do it.”