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Volunteers help care for Perth Amboy's cemeteries

November 15th, 2005

by Cindy Lewinter

Special to NJ Jewish News


On a visit to one of two cemeteries owned by Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh in Perth Amboy, Dr. Mona Shangold was disturbed by the sight of broken headstones and overgrown foliage in the common grounds.  She also overheard people in the cemetery discussing the same concerns.

Shangold, who lived in Perth Amboy until 1964, when she graduated from high school, set out to fix the problem.  It was a way, she said, “to honor and respect those interred there.”

Shangold, a physician who now lives near Philadelphia, started by launching a grassroots campaign: creating a mailing list, filing papers to create a nonprofit organization, and finding people who wanted to help and serve on the board.  A few months ago, she created a Web site.

Those efforts have now grown into Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries, Inc.  Shangold said its mission has expanded to include more than raising funds for the cemetery.  Through using the services of the organization, many people are discovering they have relatives buried at the cemeteries; others are reconnecting with childhood friends.

“We have really come together as a community for the community,” Shangold said.  “Those of us with roots in the Jewish community of Middlesex County have united to honor those who devoted their lives to the Jewish community of yesteryear.”

Shaarey Tefiloh, once the center of a thriving Jewish community in what has since become an economically struggling town, opened its doors in the early 1900s and owns two cemeteries, which it runs as not-for-profit entities.  Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh Cemetery is located on Florida Grove Road alongside the synagogue.  The other cemetery, Hebrew Fraternity of Carteret and Perth Amboy, is on New Brunswick Avenue.

Like the operators of many historic not-for-profit cemeteries, the congregation is faced with the challenge of providing perpetual care for headstones and graves that may date back a century or more.  The cost of such care has outpaced the income generated by the cemeteries.

Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries is a separate entity that is working collaboratively with the synagogue to resolve the problems.  Synagogue president Allan Goldsmith said he has always recognized that the perpetual care will eventually run out, but he said it was Shangold who took the initiative to find a solution.  He now sits on her organization’s board.

Goldsmith said that the organization is gaining support through mailings, word of mouth, and the Web site.  It hopes to raise $100,000 initially; the long-term goal is to raise enough money to restore and maintain the cemeteries forever.  All the money raised will be used for perpetual care, which includes maintaining common areas and restoring damaged headstones.

Goldsmith said an old friend found out about the cemeteries’ financial problems by word of mouth.  The friend, who is now a professor at Tufts University, was concerned because his parents are buried there, and he donated money to the effort.

Susan Klegman Horowitz was on one of Shangold’s early mailing lists.  Horowitz, who left Perth Amboy in 1968 when she married, felt a connection because she had attended Shaarey Tefiloh.  What she didn’t realize was that she also has family buried in the cemetery: Shangold told her that the graves of Harry and Esther Klegman, her grandfather and aunt, are in the cemetery.

Horowitz logged on to the organization’s Web site and took a virtual tour of the cemeteries.  She recognized many names on the gravestones; some were of people who had sat next to her in synagogue.  The site “brought back lots of memories growing up there and going to temple,” she said.  Horowitz said she plans to visit the cemetery soon and wants to explore to determine if other family members are there.

“It’s very interesting from a historical perspective,” she said.  “It’s a way of following your family tree.  You don’t think about these things when you’re younger, but when you’re older it’s important to check your roots.”

Marilyn Sapiro, who lived in Perth Amboy from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, received an e-mail from a childhood friend telling her to visit the Web site.  Sapiro had been aware of some of the cemeteries’ problems.  “I knew it was overgrown there for years and years.  I never knew it to be well taken care of, even when there was a huge Jewish population there,” she said.

Sapiro asked how she could help.  “I’m interested in helping just because I have a feeling in my heart for that cemetery,” she said.

Goldsmith said about 2,800 people are buried in the cemeteries, including a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, the famous 18th-century Lithuanian rabbi.

Those wishing to find out more about the cemeteries can visit the Web site at www.friendsofjewishcemeteries.org/, or by calling 856-222-1418.


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