(This is an updated version of the original story.)
Beth Hamedrash-Hagodol Beth Jacob congregation operates a cemetery in McKees Rocks that’s over 100 years old and is crammed with more than 4,000 graves spanning several generations.
Many of those headstones are so old and worn they can’t be read; others are inscribed in Yiddish; still more are damaged or missing altogether.
And yet, the Downtown congregation, which held an open house last week for its new synagogue (see Community photos, page 16), handles calls every week from descendants hoping to track down a loved one’s resting place.
So the congregation has gone high-tech to solve the problem.
Beth Hamedrash is now 99 percent done with work on an online geo-reference tool that permits users to look for graves or unused plots online and pinpoint the search results on a satellite photo.
“It is the only Jewish cemetery in western Pennsylvania that is utilizing this technology,” said Lee Levitt, who spent the past nine months working on the project. “It is definitely state of the art.”
Beth Hamedrash President Ira Frank said he has made it a goal for the past 12 years to put the cemetery lists online and simplify the search process.
The time was finally ripe.
“Technology has changed and I finally found someone who would put the time and an effort into it,” he said. “I mean, Google Earth didn’t exists 12 years ago.”
(Google Earth is not being used on this particular project, Levitt said. While the tool could eventually be made accessible to the public through a website, according to Frank, it is currently accessible only to officials and staff of the congregation.)
Though he preferred not to say how much the congregation spent on the project, Frank said the “significant” price tag included the costs for hardware, labor and consulting and the programs themselves. Other congregations interested in doing the same thing may pay less, he added, if they already have the hardware and know-how in house.
According to Levitt, who has a background in Internet technology, the new program is searchable by complete or partial names.
For instance, congregants can type in a full name of someone believed to be buried in the cemetery and the plot in the cemetery where he or she is buried will flash on the color photomap pinpointing where to look.
If only a partial name is available, he said, then the name is typed and all possible matches appear. The user can scroll down the list and choose the best possible matches.
“If you envision looking at a computer screen, this program will show you a geophysical picture of that cemetery where it sits — you can see the homes around it — then all the gravestones laid out as they are at the cemetery,” Levitt said. “They’re all color coded, so the oranges might represent the interred and hash marks may represent plots that are sold but not used and blank spots may be plots that are unsold.”
It can also generate yahrzeit notifications to families at the click of a button to be generated.
“It’s just a different type of process that’s available now,” Levitt said.
The “cumbersome process” of placing the congregation’s cemetery records online required many site visits and poring over index card files, 8 by 11 records and large-scale drawings, Levitt said — in order to confirm the data’s accuracy.
For the congregation, though, the work was worthwhile.
“I would say once a week the cemetery gets a call from someone saying ‘Where is my grandfather buried?’ ” Levitt said. “It’s a very useful tool for families calling in and looking for their loved ones.”
Beth Hamedrash will retain its paper records as a backup, Frank said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)