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Cemetery tour is a trip down "Memory Lane"

April 4th, 2006

New Jersey Jewish News
Middlesex County Feature

Cemetery tour is a trip down ‘Memory Lane’

Retired Woodbridge pharmacist Roy Doctofsky paused in front of a gravesite at the Hebrew Fraternity Cemetery on New Brunswick Avenue in Hopelawn. He pointed to the marker bearing the name “Carl Toborowsky.”

“He was the cop, wasn’t he?” Doctofsky asked aloud.

“No, it was the gas station,” responded Murray Guth.

Doctofsky — who drove the 25 miles from his home in Holmdel to be there — nodded.

It was the kind of conversation that filled the chilly, breezy air at the cemetery on Sunday, March 19, among about a dozen natives of Perth Amboy. The tour of the Hopelawn cemetery and, later, the Shaarey Tefiloh cemetery in nearby Perth Amboy, was guided by Mona Shangold, founder of Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries, Inc., an organization formed in February 2005 to connect today’s Jewish community with its historic roots in Perth Amboy.

The tours are an outgrowth of the Friends’ Web site which offers a virtual tour of the gravesites. The effort also has spawned a partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which created a separate affiliate, the Greater Middlesex County Jewish Cemetery Management Corporation. Its goal, explained federation controller Leslie Kornfeld, is to “help promote Friends [and] make available some of our marketing resources and manage its funds.”

Shangold billed the March 19 visit as a sort of “trip down Memory Lane.”

“Every grave has a story,” she said, as she greeted the visitors a little after noon. “This is our history, our heritage.”

Participants were there not only to reconnect with the past but, possibly, to renew old acquaintances.

“A mini-reunion,” is how Susan Horowitz, now of Belle Mead, characterized it.

Horowitz and the others walked past overturned markers and overgrown brush with one overarching objective: to see for themselves the dire straits of the grounds as part of a renewed effort to assure perpetual maintenance of the cemetery.

Guth, a 79-year-old retired insurance-agency owner, was especially distressed at the condition of the Hebrew cemetery.

“There were more stones overturned” than he had seen on previous visits, Guth lamented. “Some of those stones really need work.”

Horowitz’s grandfather and aunt are buried in the Hebrew Fraternity Cemetery.

“It was a small Jewish community. Everybody knew everybody,” recalled Horowitz after the tour. “It wasn’t that I needed to learn a lot by going. I just thought it would be interesting. As you get older, you start thinking about your family, try to find out more about them.”

Retired attorney Shel Weinstein came from Westfield to Hopelawn and Perth Amboy with a specific mission: to find family members.

“I recognized a lot of names,” he said, but “I couldn’t find them. Maybe I just missed them.”

“I know my grandfather and other members died during the ’40s and ’50s,” he said. “When I was a kid, relatives from Brooklyn came to visit, so I had reason to believe the family would be there. None of us knew any other place; it would have been in one of the older cemeteries.”

Weinstein, 66, said he’ll probably try again, after Shangold provides him with additional information on the gravesites.

Among the visitors, too, was Louis Sher, who serves as chair of the cemetery committee at Congregation Beth Mordecai, Perth Amboy.

“I’ve been hoping for years they would do something there,” said Sher, who lives in Old Bridge. He has 12 family members buried at the Hebrew Fraternity Cemetery and grew up near Shangold in Perth Amboy.

“It’s so overgrown,” said the 62-year-old retired schoolteacher. “Over the years, they just didn’t take care of it. I don’t know why. But it takes money.”

No question, agreed Shangold, a physician in Moorestown: “It costs a great amount.”

The tours, she explained, are a way of making people aware of the cemeteries’ condition and encouraging donations to help assure their survival. The goal, she said, is to raise about $1 million; about $30,000 has been collected so far, she said. “We are going to hire landscapers and are getting bids.”

In the meantime, octogenarian Leo Gursky of Edison has served as a one-man maintenance crew at the cemeteries, a role he has held for five years on behalf of Shaarey Tefiloh.

“Our belief is that the cemeteries have to be taken care of forever,” he said. “I believe in doing everything to maintain them, religiously and in every way.”

For information on how to participate in and contribute to Friends for the Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries, Inc. or 856-222-1418.

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