Message from Stan Kaplan, JCANA Chairman
JCANA is committed to the on-going maintenance and continuity of Jewish cemeteries in North America. However, part of our obligation is to also educate the Jewish community on Jewish cemetery traditions and customs. And surely the most widely practiced cemetery tradition is visiting the graves of loved ones. Although cemetery visitation can be performed anytime during the year, it is especially meaningful during the Hebrew month of Elul, prior to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when cemetery visitation increases.
During Elul, loved ones offer prayers on behalf of the deceased but also can use this time to draw nearer to G-d, to ask for forgiveness and to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. We pick up a stone to leave on the monument as a symbolic gesture to the departed that invokes, “I was here. I remember you…” Here is an opportunity to make a connection, to communicate words unspoken at one time, in the sacred act of remembrance.
It is during the month of Elul when Jewish tradition tells us that G-d’s ear is bent low to hear our prayers and requests and it is believed that the Jewish burial site is a place where the link between heaven and earth is intensified.
JCANA is devoted to preserving Jewish cemetery continuity by sustaining our Jewish burial traditions in perpetuity, consecrating our community and G-d’s name.
Stan Kaplan, Chair
Spotlight: Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati
Fourteen organizations merged in 2008 to create the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati (JCGC), an organization which owns 23 cemeteries, with 34,000 occupied graves, on 60 acres of property in Cincinnati and Hamilton, Ohio. This merger, which was conceived and developed over ten years by members of the Jewish community, had as its goal financial self-sustainability and a more efficient administration of the cemeteries, freeing individual congregations from their management and providing a succession plan for independent cemeteries with no successors in place.
The first Jewish cemeteries in the area have interesting histories. In 1821, Benjamin Lieb, who was not known to be Jewish, begged, as he lay dying, to be buried as a Jew. Two of Cincinnati’s six Jews proceeded to buy a small plot of ground which became the Chestnut Street Cemetery. This cemetery has only 85 graves and was closed after the cholera epidemic filled it in 1849. The Walnut Hills Cemetery which opened in 1850 contains the remains of many notables from Cincinnati’s Jewish past including Rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal, Civil War Medal of Honor recipient David Urbansky, Cincinnati mayor and reformer Murray Seasongood and many Hebrew Union College faculty and presidents. Subsequent land purchases allowed for the establishment of other cemeteries, eventually accommodating the growing Jewish populations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews in and around Cincinnati.
Perhaps uniquely, JCGC is composed of representatives from the three main Jewish denominations, all working together, dedicated to the mitzvah of kavod hamet (respect for the dead) in a collaborative and innovative approach to caring for the decedents of the community. The association is run by a Board of Directors which is required to have significant representation from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities. The Ritual Committee has three subcommittees composed of rabbis from the different denominations who deal with halachic (Jewish legal) matters in individual cemeteries.
There are general rules for common practices such as the size of the monuments and specific rules for cemeteries which have a denominational affiliation. There are no above ground burials and cremation burials are accommodated only in the Reform cemeteries with the cremains buried in a cremation vault. Only Jews are buried in the Conservative and Orthodox cemeteries but intermarried couples may be buried together in the Reform cemeteries. It is interesting to note that, because of the strong Reform roots in Cincinnati, whether and how to bury intermarried couples, an issue facing other JCANA members today, was never debated because of the presence of Reform cemeteries since the mid-1800’s which always allowed the practice.
The new cemetery, consisting of 23 acres and purchased in 2011, will also be unique. There will be three sections, each under the administration of one of the denominations. The rabbis on the Ritual Committee have divided the new cemetery into denominational sections. Administrators believe that this new cemetery will be the first cemetery in which all three denominations will have their own sections in one cemetery. It will truly be a community cemetery.
For more information on JCGC, see their website: www.jcemcin.org
Jewish Cemeteries Around the World: Caracas, Venezuela
The Jewish community in Caracas, Venezuela numbers about 10,000 Jews. It has more than 20 synagogues and three main cemeteries.
Each cemetery has different sections under the administration of the three major synagogues, two of which are Ashkenazi and one of which is Sephardi. The Cementerio General del Sur is the oldest and largest cemetery with 2,365 graves with the earliest graves dating from the 1930’s. With only a few available graves, it is being replaced by Gan Menucha, which opened in 1997, currently holding 300 graves, with room for approximately 3000. The other cemeteries are Guarenas and Cementerio Del Este.
Monuments are inscribed in Spanish with Hebrew used to write the deceased’s name. There may also be a few descriptive lines about the person or a quote from Psalms. An interesting feature of the cemetery is the small “house” behind the gravestones where visitors light a candle in memory of their loved one.
It is common for Jews to wish someone a long life, “biz a hundert un tsvantsik!” (Yiddish, “until 120 years!”) This number derives from two sources. The sixth chapter of the book of Genesis recounts that God decides to shorten man’s lifespan from 900-plus years: “My breath shall not abide in man forever since he is flesh, let the days allotted to him be 120 years.” (The Bible does, however, subsequently describe people living longer, including Noah who was 500 years old at the time of the flood). The second source for the 120 year life span is the death of Moses, considered to be the man closest to G-d, who, at the age of 120, dies, “his eyes not dimmed, nor his force abated.”
Jewish Cemeteries in the News
A recent article in the New York Times discussed the “major policy shift in the way New York runs its potter’s field for the burial of unclaimed bodies” on Hart Island. The 101 acre cemetery is currently administered by the Department of Corrections whose inmates bury the dead in mass graves at a rate of 1500 a year. Relatives of the deceased were only allowed to gather at a memorial area, some distance from the actual graves, one weekday a month. A lawsuit was settled which will now also allow monthly weekend visits for up to four people, only one of whom must be a relative, who will be escorted to the actual grave sites. Visitors will also be allowed to leave small mementos. Advocates for easing the restrictions contend that the cemetery stigmatizes visitors by insisting that they follow the same rules as prison visitors and hope that jurisdiction of the cemetery will be transferred to the city’s parks department.
For general information, please contact Stan Kaplan: firstname.lastname@example.org
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