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Restoring Upended Stones, With Care

October 1st, 2006

The NY Times Online 

Restoring Upended Stones, With Care

Kevin Coyne

Published: September 30, 2006

Perth Amboy  

EVERY Yom Kippur for what seemed an eternity, evening services at the Orthodox synagogue here opened with the improbably huge voice of a surprisingly small man, the revered cantor Hirsch Chazin, chanting the mournful Kol Nidre. When he died at the age of 97, he was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the reservoir at the edge of town, among congregants in whose eyes he had raised tears for decades.

“I can still hear that basso-profundo voice,” said Dr. Mona Shangold, whose great-grandparents were among the earliest members of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, when this immigrant city was home to a thriving Jewish community.

But as the holiest days of the Jewish calendar approached this year, the grave where Cantor Chazin was buried in 1978 had been disturbed. The stone that marked his long and distinguished life — as well as the adjacent stone for his wife, Dora, and the stones on 33 other graves — was toppled and lay flat on the ground. A caretaker discovered the damage on Sept. 11.

“It’s a terribly sad thing for anyone to be so disrespectful to a cemetery,” Dr. Shangold said. To her and to the Perth Amboy police, though, it looked less like an overt anti-Semitic desecration than it did a reckless weekend spree by youths insufficiently aware of mortality — their own, or anyone else’s — to understand that each stone they upended was in reverence of another life whose memory they were assaulting.

“If it were targeted at a group, there would probably be some additional stuff there, like graffiti,” Deputy Chief E. J. McDonald said. “I have a feeling that it was just somebody with no respect for anybody else.”

Cemeteries are touchingly vulnerable places, the dead waiting for whatever comes next, their wide and isolated homes an open invitation not just to midnight vandals like the ones who presumably hit here, but also to the slower-moving invaders of creeping time — grass and weeds and roots trying to reclaim the territory. Those are the more persistent enemies Dr. Shangold has been fighting lately here and in another nearby century-old cemetery also owned by Shaarey Tefiloh — cemeteries that were, for too long, the neglected remnants left behind in the suburban diaspora.

As Jews left their old neighborhoods in the cities of New Jersey, fanning out along the new highways to the greener precincts of half-acre lots, one thing they couldn’t take with them was their dead. “There’s a general problem of neglected cemeteries and vandalism,” said Etzion Neuer, director of the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League. “Sometimes there’s no one who even has the keys to the gate.”

Dr. Shangold left Perth Amboy after graduating from high school in 1964, but she returned often from her home in Moorestown to see her parents — her father was an obstetrician who delivered 40 years’ worth of the city’s babies — and, during these high holy days seasons, to visit the cemeteries with her cousins to say Kaddish at the graves of their ancestors. It was a journey that, with each passing year, looked as if it might soon require a machete.

“Ivy completely covered some of the headstones, so you couldn’t read the inscriptions,” she said. “The amount people once paid in good faith for perpetual care just wasn’t enough to pay for maintenance forever.”

So last year Dr. Shangold started a nonprofit group, Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries, to raise money to clean up the cemeteries and to keep them that way. She also started leading tours of the cemeteries one Sunday each month. The old neighbors were quick to respond, donating $50,000 so far, and turning the tours into joyful reunions.

“In April, I saw a stone with Weinstein on it, but it was so overgrown I couldn’t get to it,” said Marcia Weinstein Stern, 61, of Scarsdale, N.Y., who grew up in Perth Amboy, where her father was once the only Jewish member of Local 358 of the electricians’ union.

When she went back in August, the ivy had been cleared, and she saw that the stone was for her grandmother and her aunt, who both died in 1927. She also found the stone of an uncle she barely knew about, Pvt. Benjamin Weinstein of the New Jersey 27th Infantry, who lied about his age to enlist in World War I and died at the age of 15 in 1919 after the war ended. “They’ve done what I consider a real mitzvah here,” she said.

The day before Rosh Hashana, the monument company started setting the stones back in place. “We wanted to get them back up as fast as we could,” said Louis Sher, the head of the cemetery committee at Temple Beth Mordecai, the other remaining synagogue in Perth Amboy. Twenty of the toppled stones were in its portion of the cemetery. By last Monday, everything was restored. “Hopefully now they’ll stay that way.”

And so for Yom Kippur, Cantor Chazin’s stone stands straight and tall again, just a sprinkling of dirt still clinging to its back. His voice is silent still, except in memory, where it echoes loudest on this holiest of days.

E-mail: jersey@nytimes.com


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