By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – Just before Veterans’ Day in 2017, Dana Levenson and his sons accompanied the Jewish War Veterans to place flags on the graves of Jewish soldiers at B’nai B’rith Cemetery in Worcester.
“My father is buried there and he was a veteran. I hadn’t been to the cemetery that often. But then afterwards I thought, ‘I haven’t been to the other two cemeteries either,” said Levenson, referring to Worcester’s two other Jewish community cemeteries — Chevra Kadisha and Worcester Hebrew Cemetery. He visited them later that same day.
And he was concerned by what he saw.
“Frankly I was very disturbed by the condition of the cemeteries,” Levenson said. “Many of [the graves] were overgrown. Signage was not very good; there’s no system that I could tell of where you go to find a loved one. There are gravestones that had been toppled, not by kids but most probably by frost heaves (swelling of soil during freezing temperatures). And there were some sunken graves. I was taken aback by the condition of the place.”
Levenson began pondering how to rectify this, knowing that it would take some money to restore the cemeteries.
He first called Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., which over the years has been a sort of clearinghouse for information about the cemeteries.
After discussing the issue, the Jewish Federation approved Levenson’s ideas for a new committee, the Worcester Jewish Cemetery Improvement Association (WJCIA), and a fund to be used to restore and keep up the cemeteries.
Levenson, who is heading up the WJCIA, and an advisory board of laypeople involved with the operation of the Jewish cemeteries, will decide how to best restore the cemeteries, using $400,000 in contributions they hope to raise from the greater Worcester Jewish community.
“We want to be proud of our cemeteries and give them the dignity, respect and attention that they deserve,” Schimmel said.
More than 10,000 people are buried in these three Jewish cemeteries, which contain smaller cemetery areas belonging to area synagogues. The oldest is Worcester Hebrew Cemetery on Havana Road in Auburn, which was founded in 1896. The B’nai B’rith Cemetery on St. John’s Road was founded in 1922. Chevra Kadisha, also known as the Holy Society Cemetery, is on the Worcester side of Havana Road and was founded in 1925. (There are two Jewish sections in the Hope Cemetery in Worcester dating back to the early 1800s, but Hope no longer inters Jews).
Schimmel said that Levenson was not the first person to approach him about the cemeteries.
“Over the course of the last two or three years I had gotten calls from people who said the cemeteries really need more attention,” he said. “And when those calls would come through, we would address them the best we could.”
But Both Schimmel and Levenson agreed that something more had to be done.
“Dana talked about it in more detail and said this has to be more than just an effort here, an effort there. This needs to be a community-wide, joint project that will be able to really tackle the bigger issues so that we can make our cemeteries look a lot better,” Schimmel said.
The next step in the effort was to talk to the dedicated laypeople who care for the cemeteries — the people who know just how hard it is to maintain these sacred spaces.
“I know that the cemetery people are doing their best. Everybody acknowledges how hard they work but it’s just not their day jobs, they are laypeople,” said Levenson. “There is no administration building for the cemeteries. The business model of the cemetery is not very good anymore. You have to have a thriving growing community and the Worcester Jewish community is not what it used to be.”
Levenson made a PowerPoint presentation of some of the issues at the cemeteries to the 10 people running the cemeteries and then asked them to be on the advisory committee.
According to the Federation, the “Advisory Committee exists for the purpose of informing the WJCIA about the needs of the cemeteries when it comes to necessary capital improvements.” The members of the Advisory Committee are Morris Bergman, Andy Davis, Robert Dubin, Alan Feingold, Lewis Lasky, Richard Perlman, Bernie Rotman, Joel Shaw, Saul Slovin, and Bruce Wahle.
“It’s a wonderful mitzvah to be able to take care of a cemetery, but unfortunately there isn’t a lot of visibility and it’s not on the top of a lot of minds,” said Bernie Rotman, of Worcester Hebrew. “It falls to the Jewish community to make sure that the cemeteries are kept up to a high level of honor and respect. But it’s a struggle and I don’t know of any Jewish cemeteries that are kind of making it financially.”
Bernie Rotman says that he and the other cemetery volunteers were happy when Levenson approached them about the WJCIA.
“We are proud of what we are able to accomplish at the different cemeteries, but we could use the help,” he said. When Dana identified the problem and said he would come up with a solution, I thought it was wonderful. We will do everything to assist him that we can.”
Levenson said that the hard work will start soon – raising the money.
“It will be a quiet campaign. I’m putting in some money myself, and I’ll be asking others to do the same. It will be open to anybody who wants to contribute, but on the other hand I think this is where Jewish leadership in Worcester needs to step up and say, ‘Ok, here’s what it takes.’”
Levenson said he will ask different congregations to give him a few minutes at the end of services to share information about the cemetery improvement plan and ask for support.
Levenson said it will take $400,000 just to take care of what has to be worked on now. “We are talking signage, security, fence repair. We are talking about toppled and broken stones being righted, graves being filled in where they have to be…I think that will take $400,000.”
When asked why this new committee and the condition of the cemeteries is so important to him, Levenson mentioned a quote he used when meeting with his Advisory Committee.
“The worth of a community,” he said, “is most clearly evident by how it cares for its deceased.”
CAP: Worcester Hebrew Cemetery