Jacob Notovitz keeps his promises.
An 88-year-old veteran from Wilkinsburg who served during the Korean War, Notovitz is the commander of the Jewish War Veterans Pittsburgh Post #499 and a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service recognizing his work aiding veterans. For at least 20 years — maybe longer, he can’t remember — he’s been going out every May with a group of volunteers to plant American flags on servicemen’s graves.
A week before Memorial Day, as per tradition, the team met for breakfast at 7 a.m. at a Shadyside diner. Afterward, Notovitz drove the lead car to the North Side. He is the one who knows which cemeteries in Shaler and Reserve townships to hit and in which order. He learned the route years ago from “the previous guy.”
“Everybody in my post used to go out,” Notovitz recalled. “Twenty to 30 guys. We used to have a whole convoy going out. I’m the only one left, me and Bill Aronson,” a Vietnam veteran. Joining the two of them in Notovitz’s car was Dick Silk, a Vietnam veteran who recently joined the post.
Driving behind in a pickup truck were Jerry Stalinsky, also a Vietnam veteran, and Burt Hochhauser, who is not a veteran, but has volunteered for years.
At each stop the members of the team grabbed bundles of flags from the trunk of Notovitz’s car and fanned out, calling to each other to make sure someone walked every row, looking for the tell-tale veterans’ markers and inscriptions. In many of the cemeteries Notovitz remembered without looking where the servicemen’s graves were, pointing to the far end of a row in the Troy Hill Cemetery, for example, where he knew the flat stone of a Civil War vet would be found. When Notovitz pointed out a couple of World War I vets at the very top of the steep hill at Machsikei Hadas, the team dispatched its youngest member with a joke about the Four Questions.
Everywhere they went the grass and concrete were still wet and slippery after the previous day’s rain. Notovitz permitted only those steadiest on their feet to descend the slippery slope of the old Kether Torah cemetery to where it adjoined the Podolier cemetery. Although only the second stop of the day, everyone’s shoes were already soaked through. Mud and grass accumulated in Notovitz’s car.
“There are 32 Jewish cemeteries around the county. We cover 13 or 14. I gave one away,” he explained about Rodef Shalom’s West View Cemetery in Ross Township, clarifying, “I couldn’t do it anymore. It was too big.”
Active congregations like Rodef Shalom and Beth Shalom organize volunteers for their cemeteries; however, most of the cemeteries Notovitz covers belong to defunct organizations, like Machsikei Hadas (1900-1989) and Tiphereth Israel (1890-1940s). Four are maintained by the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association, whose volunteers were weeding at the Workmen’s Circle Branch #45 cemetery when Notovitz’s team arrived at its fifth stop of the day.
Those cemetery societies that survive are grateful for the volunteers.
“It’s a nice gesture,” said Dr. Macy Levine, 96, acting chairman of the First Independent Podolier Society (founded 1919) and himself a WWII veteran. “The Podolier cemetery appreciates that activity.”
Except for Troy Hill, Pittsburgh’s oldest Jewish cemetery, these cemeteries continue to have new burials. Members of Notovitz’s team found themselves in places where they had buried loved ones in recent years, even in a couple cases where they had purchased their own burial plots. They took note of the newer stones of friends, including fellow veterans.
The family members of the veterans also value the flag planting tradition. “If we miss one, we hear about it,” said Silk, a contact person for the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in Mifflin Township.
As the morning went on, the pile of old flags in the back of Jerry’s truck grew. Most were left for burial at New Light, where cemetery workers were in the process of opening up a new grave. The rest would be burned as per official protocol.
All told, the team made seven stops, since most of the cemeteries are situated in groups. In a typical year the team finishes the last cemetery by 11 a.m. before driving back to the diner and going their separate ways.
Notovitz’s work, though, didn’t conclude until he cleaned his car the following day. “It was filthy!” he sighed, but he took it all in stride, just pleased that he had made it through another year with enough volunteers to get the job done.
But he wondered how the work would continue. Only a couple volunteers turned up at another group, he heard later.
Irv Roth, 93, a World War II vet who helps manage the cemetery for Cneseth Israel (1905-1978), Notovitz’s second stop of the day, reflected, “The younger ones will get pushed to the front of the line.”
Tammy Hepps is founder of the HomesteadHebrews.com.