Non-profit Looks to Preserve and Restore Jewish Cemeteries in Middlesex and Monmouth Counties
Many of the 35 Jewish cemeteries throughout Middlesex and Monmouth counties look neat and well-kept but looks can be deceiving.
Many of these are affiliated with synagogues, which in some cases no longer exist. Others were once operated by fraternal organizations or burial societies. Some of the independent cemeteries have sections for exclusive use by synagogues. But what happens when the synagogue closes or the organization ceases to exist?
The question of who will pay for the maintenance of the grounds and graves has long troubled Michael Wasserman, president of non-profit Greater Middlesex Jewish Cemetery Management Corporation, who said that “while synagogues and fraternal societies come and go, cemeteries are forever.”
“Some of these cemeteries are already in physical decline,” said Wasserman. “They don’t have a succession plan.”
Wasserman said several years ago in the face of rising antisemitic vandalism incidents Jewish Federation was asked by the state Attorney General’s office for a list of Jewish cemeteries. He found 35 locations, most of them not part of a larger cemetery organization.
The non-profit cemetery corporation was created in 1995 by leaders of what was then the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County to provide support and guidance to cemeteries to avoid abandonment. Since the merger with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County to become the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey its mission has expanded to include cemeteries located there.
Federation Executive Director Susan Antman said its leaders felt an obligation “based on Jewish values” to form a body to take on responsibility for abandoned cemeteries and graves that no longer had relatives or congregations to care for them.
The merger served to further drive home that the need for support would only continue to grow, she added, and Federation sought to provide more comprehensive services, including financial management, planning, maintenance and operations. Antman credited Wasserman, who at the time was a Federation board member and chair of the cemetery corporation, with identifying prospective support resources, leading to a collaboration with the New York City-based Community Alliance for Jewish Affiliated Cemeteries (CAJAC), which operates in the New York Metropolitan Area, and membership in the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, which manages more than 150 mostly abandoned Jewish cemeteries and where Wasserman now sits on the executive board.
Wasserman, who has devoted significant time to the cemetery issue over the last several years since retiring from his job doing statistical analysis and market research for an insurance company, said cemeteries need to become part of a larger organization to ensure they are not left to become overgrown and graves aren’t left to crumble in an uncertain future.
Wasserman cited the example of a cemetery affiliated with a still-functioning synagogue in Middlesex County, that he declined to name, that he and his wife happened to pass in 2020. Although his wife mentioned that it looked to be in great shape, he disagreed after investigating.
”Looks can be deceiving,” he said. “We cannot know by looking at it. The worst ones aren’t the ones that look the worst.”
After meeting with the synagogue’s cemetery chair Wasserman discovered that the synagogue had inherited it from a fraternal organization that disbanded in the 1980s. The cemetery had an investment account that had been spent and not replenished.
“The shul charges nothing to members who want a grave; they consider it a benefit of membership,” he said. “Revenue for maintenance comes from 40 descendants of the original fraternal organization’s members who send annual invoices of $100. Is this sustainable? Obviously not.”
Wasserman found another independent burial site, the Ahavas Achim Cemetery on Bingle Street in Perth Amboy—a city that was once home to one of the state’s largest Jewish populations—that had long been abandoned and left to the elements. It has no connection to Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park. Although Wasserman has located the original map, even if the lot is cleared, he doubts the graves could be located.
“It only existed for a couple of years in the thirties and is now totally overgrown,” he said. “No one can even figure out where the graves are.”
Another nearby burial site, the Bingle Street Cemetery, which was operated by the former Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, is under the auspices of the Shaarey Tefiloh Cemetery Association and is in good shape, according to Wasserman.
He said regional cemetery oversight bodies have been established in other locales. In Cincinnati, 25 cemeteries are operated by a consolidated organization while all 125 cemeteries in Massachusetts are under the auspices of one organization.
Already CAJAC has assumed management of three Woodbridge cemeteries formerly operated by the Hebrew Fraternity of Carteret, the Workmen’s Circle and the Beth Israel of Perth Amboy as part of its collaboration with the Federation corporation. The latter cemetery was affiliated with a now-defunct synagogue and is not associated with the still-functioning Beth Israel Memorial Park, also in Woodbridge. CAJAC is also managing the Independent Order of Brith Abraham site in North Brunswick.
“No one has a crystal ball, but we can prepare for contingencies and that’s what this is all about,” said Antman, “positioning our community to approach needs as they evolve from a place of strength to raise awareness, so our synagogues are prepared and they know a resource is available if and when they need it.”
Wasserman said even for those cemeteries that are currently well-managed and financially stable, not having a plan in place is just “kicking the can down the road.”
He added: “It’s like deciding on your 64th birthday to save money for retirement. These cemetery trustees need to do it sooner rather than later.”
Debra Rubin is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.