Task force examining future needs of Jewish Pittsburgh’s cemeteries

Task force examining future needs of Jewish Pittsburgh’s cemeteries

The Beth Abraham Cemetery, which is maintained by the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association, was vandalized in June 2015. 	Photo provided by Johnathan Schachter
The Beth Abraham Cemetery, which is maintained by the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association, was vandalized in June 2015. Photo provided by Johnathan Schachter

While the majority of the estimated 135 Jewish cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania continue to be well maintained, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has convened a task force to ensure that a plan is in place for perpetual care of those sites, especially those that are no longer attached to an active congregation or cemetery board.

The 15 volunteer members of the Jewish Cemeteries Task Force, convened by the Federation in 2015, have so far met three times to examine and collect data on each cemetery’s current and future needs. With a $28,000 grant from the planned giving arm of the Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation, the Task Force has engaged a cemetery consultant from Boston to analyze the data and make recommendations going forward.

That consultant, Stan Kaplan, is the executive director and one of the founders of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts and has had more than 30 years of experience managing 118 cemeteries in Massachusetts.

The mission of JCAM — which Pittsburgh may soon replicate — is to pool community resources and establish an umbrella organization to maintain the cemeteries, according to Kaplan.

“In 1984, there was a community concern in Massachusetts that the cemeteries were not properly cared for, as is the concern in Pittsburgh today,” Kaplan said.

Because some of the Western Pennsylvania Jewish cemeteries do not have many new burials, limited funds are coming in to those cemeteries, Kaplan explained. In addition, some communities no longer have a sizable Jewish presence, and those volunteers who have been managing their cemeteries are aging or have moved to other locales.

“There is a succession crisis,” said Kaplan, leaving some cemeteries at risk for neglect or abandonment. “This is something we have to head off at the pass.”

In Pittsburgh, the management of each cemetery depends on individual circumstance, according to Jonathan Schachter, president of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, a nonprofit established in 1992 to provide free burials for the needy and indigent, and to take care of those cemeteries that are no longer managed by the congregations to which they once were connected, as is the case when a congregation dissolves.

“There are some cemeteries attached to existing congregations, some attached to congregations that are no longer around but with a cemetery board,” said Schachter, who also serves on the Task Force. “Some cemeteries are from congregations that are long out of existence but have one or two people still managing things.”

The JCBA fills in the gaps for those cemeteries that are not cared for otherwise.

“Some of the cemeteries are better taken care of than others,” said Schachter, who frequents many of the sites. “It depends on the individuals or group of individuals that are remaining on the board. There are not really any cemeteries that are in really bad shape.”

Sharon Ryave Brody, who runs Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel, has occasion to see many of the local cemeteries on a regular basis. Brody, who also serves on the board for the JCBA as well as on the Task Force, noted that while most of the larger cemeteries are kept up fairly well, “some of the smaller ones without a congregation are struggling financially, and the upkeep is not what we would like it to be.”

In Massachusetts, through JCAM, Kaplan has pooled community resources and raised enough funds to eliminate the “problem of succession, because there is now one umbrella group handling 118 cemeteries,” he said. He has created an endowment fund that totals more that $16 million and “will sustain the cemeteries in a dignified manner.”

Kaplan hopes to “work together to replicate this success story in Pittsburgh,” he said.

Kaplan intends to come to Pittsburgh in the next several months to meet with community leaders and could then “get the ball rolling to create an independent communal nonprofit management company.”

To form an umbrella organization as suggested by Kaplan will require some serious fundraising, according to Jimmy Wagner, chair of the Task Force.

“For us to have legitimacy, we will have to fundraise for $2 million,” Wagner said. “We’re going to have to say this is a community responsibility and a set aside any territorial attitudes.”

Wagner acknowledged that there are “plenty of local cemeteries that struggle to keep the grass mowed.”

“But if you had a master organization,” funds could be pooled to cover such line items as security, concrete repair and landscaping.

By studying the current state of the cemeteries, and working with the consultant, “we’re trying to find out if this is a problem, a future problem, or if we’re late to the problem,” Wagner said.

The work the Task Force is doing, said Brody, “is for the greater good of the whole Jewish community.”

“It’s about ensuring the continuation of our heritage, of our sacred burial places,” she said. “The cemeteries may be kept up now, but they may not be in 20 years. Children move away and don’t come back. And kids are not necessarily thinking, ‘I need to make sure my grandmother’s cemetery is taken care of.’ It’s our duty as Jewish people to take care of our dead and to take care of our cemeteries.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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