By Abigail Adams
G-d full of Mercy who dwells on high
Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your Divine Presence
-El Maleh Rachamim
On the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the El Maleh Rachamim prayer will be recited at the Hebrew Cemetery Corp. and Chevra Kadisha cemeteries. Passages from Psalms will also be heard as Jewish families perform the mitzvah of kever avot and visit the graves of their loved ones. “We don’t keep track of our visitors,” Lewis Lasky, president of Chevra Kadisha, told the Jewish Ledger. “But you can tell that many have been here by the stones that have been placed on the graves.” Jordan Robbins, chairman of the Our Cemeteries Committee of the Jewish Federation of Central MA (JFCM), said the same about the Hebrew Cemetery Corp.—the dramatic increase in stones on graves is an indication of the number that come to remember and respect the dead around the High Holidays.
“One of the major mitzvahs of the Torah is showing k’vod ha-met, or showing respect for someone who is deceased,” Rabbi Yaakov Blotner told the Jewish Ledger while walking through the Chevra Kadisha cemetery “Seeing that one who’s passed away has a proper Jewish burial is a big part of that.” Hebrew Cemetery Corp. and Chevra Kadisha are the primary burial grounds for Worcester’s Jewish community. (The B’nai B’rith Lodge also operates a Jewish cemetery in Worcester, but it is reserved strictly for members.) The two independently operated cemeteries sit on adjacent property connected by Cemetery Road near the border of Worcester, Leicester and Auburn. They are struggling both financially and administratively to maintain their property and ensure that Worcester’s Jewish community continues to have access to a proper Jewish burial.
Worcester’s first Jewish cemeteries were organized shortly after Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Central MA in the mid-1800s. The Sons of Israel and the Sons of Abraham Congregations arranged for Jewish burials in designated lots in Worcester’s Municipal Hope Cemetery. In 1896, the Hebrew Cemetery Corp. formed after being granted permission by the town of Auburn to use land near the Boston-Albany railroad for burial purposes-1904 is the oldest recorded burial. Also in 1904, the Worcester Ladies Chevra Kadisha Corp. formed to ensure that the ritual purification or Tahara was performed on the bodies of the deceased. In 1925, Chevra Kadisha expanded and began to operate a cemetery on 2.56 acres abutting the Hebrew Cemetery Corp.
On a walk through the Chevra Kadisha Cemetery, Lewis Lasky shared with the Ledger its beautiful and unique features that are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Lasky took charge of the cemetery after its former administrator, Korean War POW Irving Yarock, passed away. “I was either the right person at the right time, or the wrong person at the wrong time,” Lasky half-joked about his current responsibilities. “I haven’t decided which.” Chevra Kadisha is currently composed of eight sections and the burial grounds that formerly belonged to the Workmen’s Circle and the Sons of Jacob. Chevra Kadisha, also, assumed responsibility for the Jewish lots in the Hope Cemetery. Maintenance, such as landscaping and plowing, costs an estimated $30,000 annually; costs that are exacerbated by Worcester’s hilly geography and an underground stream on the property, which sometimes results in unstable gravestones.
“Technically the gravestones are the property of the families,” Lasky said. “But what do you do when a stone falls down and the family doesn’t have the means? You pick it up. So, a lot of the times, the costs fall on us.” Chevra Kadisha has squeaked by with income from interest on a small endowment and the sale of lots. However, the available lots on Chevra Kadisha’s current property are running dangerously low. They would like to purchase new property to continue to be able to offer burial plots, but Lasky admits that won’t be possible without a large infusion of funds. “We do the best we can,” Lasky said. “But ultimately it’s an issue of dollars and cents.”
The Hebrew Cemetery Corp. is, also, no stranger to financial struggle.Since its incorporation, the cemetery has switched administrative hands several times. In its early years, Hebrew Cemetery Corp. was transferred to the Sons of Abraham. After a succession of mergers, it became the responsibility of Sharaai Torah West. Due to a financial crisis, the Jewish Federation of Central MA became involved and took on the administrative duties of fund-raising, maintenance and burial arrangements. “I told them, if you ever get into trouble give us a call,” Jordan Robbins, former President of the JFCM told the Ledger about the Federation’s involvement. “By the time they did, they were, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt.”
The annual cost of maintenance for Hebrew Cemetery Corp. is approximately $40,000—an increased cost from Chevra Kadisha because Hebrew Cemetery Corp. is, also, responsible for the maintenance of Cemetery Road and has no access to water. A series of business arrangements in Hebrew Cemetery Corp.’s early years has, also, had an unforeseen impact on its current financial position. The land that was sold to Hebrew Cemetery Corp. came with a stipulation that the local power company had a right-of-way, which National Grid is currently taking advantage of to rehang power lines; further eroding the already poor condition of Cemetery Road. In the Hebrew Cemetery Corp. by-laws, developed over 100 years ago, it was written that burial fees for Sons of Abraham congregants were waived. Due to this, the Federal Government denied Hebrew Cemetery Corp. non-profit status.
The shared financial burden of Hebrew Cemetery Corp. and Chevra Kadisha led to talks in 2011 of a merger into a single compound and the transfer of either ownership or administrative duties to the Jewish Cemetery Association of MA (JCAM). Merger talks, however, are currently on hold with JCAM moving out of the picture, due to concern over the $1 million endowment they are requiring. Hebrew Cemetery Corp. is slowly improving its financial position with the support of the community. It depends largely on volunteerism for the upkeep of its property and even receives support from the Worcester County Sherriff’s Office, which supplies work-crews of prisoners twice a year for two to three days to mow grass, dig out plantings, fix and level gravestones and complete other miscellaneous tasks. “It’s been a great help,” Jordan Robbins said of the Sherriff’s Office program, which he brought to the Hebrew Cemetery Corp. “Any help is great help, especially around the High Holidays. Otherwise, we’d have to pay thousands of dollars just to get the place in shape.”
In addition to his responsibilities as the primary administrator of the Hebrew Cemetery Corp., Jordan Robbins has undertaken a variety of genealogical and historical research related to the cemeteries. Recently, he updated the records of the 2500 buried in Hebrew Cemetery Corp., which required a review of each individual gravestone. “It’s a mitzvah that’s needed,” Robbins said of his work. “Sometimes I get a complaint call and I feel like giving up, but you know, this is something that’s got to get done.”