The old cemeteries of Newark

Abandonment, neglect, and vandalism have left them in shambles.

newark graves 298 (photo credit: Peter C. Beller)
newark graves 298
(photo credit: Peter C. Beller)
NEWARK, New Jersey - Across Newark there are scattered signs that Jews once flourished here: churches that still bear Stars of David, a YMHA building now a school, shuttered businesses. But the most enduring and heartbreaking reminders that this city's Jews left behind are the cemeteries they built and then, for the most part, abandoned as they left for better lives in the suburbs. Now the graveyards that chart the rise and subsequent diaspora of what was once one of America's largest Jewish communities are gaining new attention from their descendants, aggrieved at the destruction wrought by decades of neglect. "I was pretty horrified," recalled Marsha Dubrow when seeing her grandparents' graves six years ago on a visit to the Talmud Torah cemetery with her mother. Like others who have come looking for the final resting place of immigrant forebears, she was shocked to see hundreds of headstones lying on the ground, victims of both vandalism and the elements. "I understand that there was vandalism in the 60's and all that," Ms. Dubrow said. "The fact is the community itself had not been caring for it." The cemeteries, clustered around South Orange Avenue and further south around McClellan Street, date mostly from around the turn of the 20th Century when a wave of immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, settling along Prince Street and, later in outlying areas like Weequahic, made famous by the writer Philip Roth, who grew up there. The influx spawned dozens of synagogues, burial societies, trade unions and other civic groups that formed the backbone of a population that would grow to 75,000 by the 1940's, according to Alice Perkins Gould, whose recent book, "The Old Jewish Cemeteries of Newark" (Avotaynu, 2005), charts the graveyards' history. Cemeteries like Grove Street, Union Field and Talmud Torah are dotted with fences and plaques naming the various organizations, Ansche Warsaw, Ansche Rumania, Workmen's Circle, that purchased individual plots in which to bury their members. Eventually, as the community prospered and Newark began to decay, whole congregations relocated to suburbs like Hillside, South Orange and Livingston, sometimes building replicas of the Newark synagogues they left behind. Remaining congregations merged and the civic groups folded, leaving little or no provisions for the upkeep of the cemeteries. The riots of 1967 and 1968, which destroyed much of Prince Street, were the last straw for which few Jews remained, said Max Arthur Berman, an assistant professor of sociology at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. What had once been the city's outskirts had become gritty neighborhoods where fewer and fewer relatives ventured to pay their respects to ancestors ever more removed by the passage of time. The cemeteries were vandalized often in the 1960's and 1970's with headstones pushed over and metal fencing and bronze plaques stolen for scrap, according to Ms. Gould. "Either all the owners of these cemeteries moved away or, in the case of the landsmanshaften, the organizations just die off and then there's nobody to take care of them anymore," said Rabbi Stephen Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, using the Yiddish word for burial society. Unlike the massive park-like cemeteries that cater to today's Jewish community in New Jersey and which are privately run businesses, the burial societies of the early 20th Century were not-for-profit and the concept of paying for perpetual care did not yet exist, added Rabbi Kushner, who chairs a board seeking to rehabilitate the cemeteries. New Jersey passed a law in 1971 requiring cemeteries to set up trust funds for maintenance. Today nearly all visitors to the cemeteries come on an annual visiting day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when they are escorted by the police. Lately, however, there are also signs of change. In 1994 proceeds from the sale of an unused section of the Beth El cemetery on McClellan Ave, near Newark Liberty Airport, were used to form a trust to rehabilitate the cemeteries. The $30,000 to $40,000 in annual interest from the fund has been used to repair some of the fences and gates, said Lori Abrams, of the Metrowest chapter of United Jewish Communities, which oversees the trust. Ms. Dubrow, a cultural historian, started the Legacy Fund with her uncle and has collected around $300,000 and spent about $50,000 to repair headstones in the Adas Israel and Mishnayes section of the Grove Street site, where her relatives are buried. She said progress has been slow but she plans to do the same at the other cemeteries around South Orange Avenue. In the past year, two synagogues that once buried congregants in Newark and now thrive in the suburbs have taken over maintenance of their historic cemeteries: Oheb Shalom, in South Orange, and Temple B'Nai Abraham in Livingston. Other congregations have also inquired about doing so, Ms. Abrams said. Most importantly perhaps, Newark is coming back after decades of decline. The downtown area, which is undergoing a renaissance and new housing, mostly for immigrants, is booming, said Professor Berman. New Jewish immigrants from Russia have settled in the Ivy Hill neighborhood, attend their own Chabad shul and began making burials at Grove Street. The one remaining Newark synagogue from the early 20th Century, Ahavas Shalom, has about 30 steady members, including Jews from Russia, Brazil and Sudan and receives contributions from the larger suburban Jewish community. Around South Orange Avenue, the derelict Pabst brewery, a dominating structure with its signature 30-foot-high bottle, is in the process of being demolished and the neighborhood is improving. Ms. Gould, who with a team of volunteers has recorded the information from 27,000 headstones for use in an international Jewish genealogy project, hopes the changes will encourage the curious to visit. On a recent sunny afternoon, though, Grove Street revealed just how much has yet to be done. Among the graves of rabbis, businessmen, soldiers and children, dozens of tombstones lie on the ground, some haphazardly, others in twos and threes. Crabgrass grows in patches and cigarette packs and fast food containers litter many of the small entrances. Most of the wrought-iron gates, with ornate rusted lettering, are still left unlocked so vandals won't be enticed to tear them down.