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Sacred Ground

Beautification project restores Worcester’s Jewish cemeteries

 By Stacey Dresner

The entrance of Worcester Hebrew Cemetery before its restoration.

WORCESTER – After a successful capital campaign that raised more than the goal of $400,000, the effort to refurbish Worcester’s Jewish cemeteries is nearly done.

Both Worcester Hebrew Cemetery and Chevra Kadisha have been landscaped, fallen gravestones have been up-righted, fresh paint covers cement posts and stairways, and new signs now welcome visitors to the cemeteries.

Dana Levenson, chair of the Worcester Jewish Cemetery Improvement Association (WJCIA), said that the third cemetery, B’nai B’rith Cemetery, should be finished by early next year.

“We may end up having to wait until the spring because there’s some fairly heavy iron work that needs to be done, replacing gates and cement posts,” Levenson said. “But I fully expect that by the time spring rolls around, we will have three pretty much completely renovated cemeteries here in Worcester.”

Levenson got involved with the effort to restore the area’s Jewish cemeteries after visiting B’nai B’rith Cemetery on Memorial Day in 2017 with his sons to help the Jewish War Veterans put flags on the graves of veterans.

Noticing overgrown graves, toppled gravestones and inadequate signage, he then visited Worcester Hebrew Cemetery and Chevra Kadisha, which were in much the same condition.

Levenson contacted Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., and the Federation approved the formation of the WJCIA, which includes an advisory board of community laypeople involved in running the cemeteries.

Schimmel praised Levenson’s work as chair of the cemetery improvement association and the capital campaign.

“Dana’s leadership on the project was the reason for its success,” Schimmel said. “He’s been so committed to it and has really led the way, both in the fundraising and the actual execution of the beautification project. That’s been really impressive and it’s been great to work with him on it.”

The WJCIA originally sought to raise $400,000 for the cemetery capital campaign. In the end, $401,500 was raised.

Some of the larger donors were businessman and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; real estate developer and Worcester native Jeff Greene; businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson; and the Sigel Family Foundation. 

But Levenson said that the whole community made the campaign a success.

“We had around 110 donors. We got gifts as small as $25 and we got gifts as large as $6,000. The average gift was around $600 or $700.”

Most of the soliciting had been done by last spring before Covid, with the campaign ending in April.

“We asked when we solicited people that if you made a pledge we really would like you to pay by June 1,” Levenson said. “And just about everyone has.”

Three months ago the physical work at the cemeteries began.

New signage at Chevra Kadisha Cemetery.

“We did landscaping, arborial work, signage and we did the righting of stones, and a lot of cement work.

“In one of the cemeteries, Worcester Hebrew, there was a huge number of tombstones that were down,” Levenson said. “They weren’t toppled by anybody but rather they actually got felled by a tree bough that fell. And there were some others stones in the cemetery that had toppled because of frost heaves [swelling of soil during freezing temperatures]. Now there are virtually no tombstones that are on the ground; they’re all sitting upright, the way they should.”

At Worcester Hebrew much of the cement work – pillars, steps and walkways – were given a fresh coat of white paint. Two fur trees next to the entrance were cut down and a new sign was installed.

“We wanted to replace it with something that was a little bit more in keeping with the setting,” Levenson said.
Some large trees at Chevra Kadisha were taken down, and in Worcester Hebrew a tree that had caused some damage was also removed.

“The tree was on its last legs,” Levenson explained. “A year and a half a go a large bough fell from that tree as those things do. It was right in the middle of the cemetery, and there was no way it was going to come down without taking out down some stones. But those have all been fixed,” Levenson said. “If the stone could be fixed, it was fixed. And if it couldn’t be fixed for some reason, we laid it carefully in the ground where the grave was.”
Work has also been done on the cemeteries’ signage, including a new sign at the entrance of Worcester Hebrew and signage on a white slab of stone has also been refurbished.

One of the bigger expenses was repaving the parking lot of Worcester Hebrew and an access road that had deteriorated tremendously. Because CSX railroad tracks ran across the access road, the corporation donated funds to repave the road.

“We are very pleased with how this has turned out,” Levenson said.

Now, in addition to getting B’nai B’rith’s restoration finished, the next step is a database.

An excel sheet on the website of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. does contain the names and locations of the more than 10,000 Jews buried in the cemeteries. A new more sophisticated database with a new mapping system will provide clearer information about the location of graves.

“All three cemeteries have or are in the process of turning in a list of interments have taken place over the past five to 10 years. Right now the database consists of 10,650 Jews that have been buried at these three cemeteries,” Levenson explained. 

(Some of the names on the database are Jews who were buried two Jewish sections in the Hope Cemetery in Worcester dating back to the early 1800s where Jews are no longer interred.)

“Once that is done I’d say you’re probably looking at another 1,000 Jews that will be in that database. It will be the name of the person, the date of interment and location — which cemetery and [the location] within the cemetery.”

They also have plans for a GPS app.

“If someone wants to find a loved one, all they will have to do go on their phone, or their computer and look up on this GPS system exactly where this person is buried, and it will direct them there, so we are also going to be doing new maps for all three cemeteries as well,” Levenson said. “The other thing that we haven’t gotten to, which we fully plan to is security systems that are going to be in each of the three cemeteries. Basically motion based lights with cameras.”

Levenson said he hopes the upkeep of the cemeteries will continue after the beautification project.

“Cemetery management does as good a job as possible, but money is short when it comes to the operations of the cemeteries. [Upkeep] was not the intent of the project — it was really a capital campaign,” Levenson said. “I’m hoping this is long-term not short-term, because nothing’s going to last. These cemeteries deteriorate over time. I am a Worcester native and when I go there I see so many graves of people that I knew growing up, whether they are family members or friends or stalwarts in the community…
This is our legacy.”

“As the resting place of our community members, our family members and our leaders, its sacred ground. And that should be reflected,” agreed Schimmel. “There should be beauty in the final resting place of these people who meant so much to us. A cemetery should reflect the values of the community the upkeep of the cemeteries reflects a  very important Jewish value.”

Main Photo: Overgrown trees and shrubs at the entrance of Worcester Hebrew Cemetery have been cut back to provide a cleaner, more light-filled appearance. Cement posts and stairs have been given a new coat of paint.

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