Lost Rochester cemetery refurbished after chance discovery

The "Jewish Poor Lot" in a Rochester cemetary was used between 1886 and 1912, with 85 children and 15 adults buried.

August 13, 2007 23:00
2 minute read.
Lost Rochester cemetery refurbished after chance discovery

secular cemetary 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Some 75 people from the Jewish community of Rochester, New York, attended a dedication ceremony Sunday to honor a rediscovered burial plot, long unknown to the community, where over 100 Jews from the 19th century were buried. The first Jewish graveyard in the city, and a special graveyard section for "Poor Jews" were recently rediscovered during a "Mitzvah Day" cleanup organized by a local synagogue. Cemetery records noted the Jewish area and separate "Jewish Poor Lot," where 105 Jews, mostly children who had died from disease and sickness, were buried anonymously. The ceremony was attended by various members of the community, including one man whose great, great grandfather (1797-1867), was buried in the cemetery. While Jews in the city knew about the existence of the Jewish cemetery, they did not know where it was located, until it was randomly rediscovered in 2005 during a Mitzvah Day cleanup organized by Reform synagogue Temple B'rith Kodesh. While some participants served food in soup kitchens, or visited old age homes, congregant Earl Gurell, together with several others, were sent to Mt. Hope Cemetery to clean up areas no longer in use. As they cleaned, they discovered the Jewish cemetery, where 90 percent of the tombstones had fallen down or been desecrated. Subsequent research by Gurell and Jerry Zakalik showed that these sections were the first public Jewish burial plots in Rochester. Cemetery records dated part of the original purchase to April 3, 1848, by several founders of the then Orthodox synagogue B'rith Kodesh, seven months before the synagogue was established. Another, adjacent section was purchased by the Rochester German Benevolent Society in 1849. Thirty years after its founding, Temple B'rith Kodesh became affiliated with the Reform Movement, remaining so to this day, and is currently the largest synagogue in Rochester, which has a Jewish population of roughly 20,000. At the time of the first discovery, cemetery staff also informed Gurell of "The Jewish Poor Lot," an additional site on the cemetery grounds, which the Jewish community had no prior knowledge of. This plot of land was purchased from the city for $1 in 1885, to bury poor Jews who couldn't afford their own land. With the help of members of B'rith Kodesh many of the tombstones were repaired and memorial stones dating each of the plots were erected at the sites. From the 1840's to the 1870's, 128 children and 47 adults were buried in the B'rith Kodesh area. The "Jewish Poor Lot" was used between 1886 and 1912, with 85 children and 15 adults buried. The plots where Jews were buried were referred to as "Jew ground," Gurell told The Jerusalem Post. At the time of the first purchase in 1848, the Jewish community was only a few decades old, comprised mainly of German immigrants. The fact that the city was willing to sell the land to the Jews is a sign that "the city was liberal enough to provide a place for the Jews," said Joel Elliot, executive director of B'rith Kodesh. "The ceremony is a reclaiming of frontier heritage."

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