The gravestones on Jewell Street go back to 1856, but for years some of them have been neglected. Tombstones have toppled and groundhogs have moved in. With a new database of cemetery plots, Eli Greer is poised to perform an “act of true kindness” for those buried there.
That’s “chesed shel emes” in Hebrew. Greer mentioned the term Thursday before a press conference recognizing cemetery improvements.
Mayor John DeStefano and State Rep. Pat Dillon were on hand at the press conference to celebrate the new sidewalks and new trees on Jewell Street, where 15 different Jewish cemeteries lie.
Those who have passed on cannot thank the living for taking care of their graves, Greer explained. It’s an act of chesed shel emes to take care of them.
To ensure they are remembered, Greer and other volunteers have created a comprehensive database of information on all cemetery plots. It’s searchable online and includes plot-by-plot maps of each cemetery. Greer worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and and the Jewish cemetery association to make it happen.
More work remains to be done. The cemeteries have fallen headstones, groundhog holes, broken fences, invasive trees, and obscured footstones. Greer is now collecting donations to fix all of those problems, which he estimated will cost as much as $18,000.
On Thursday Greer offered a quick tour of the cemeteries. The greater New Haven area holds 44 Jewish cemeteries. The 15 on Jewell Street are “the heart,” Greer said. Each represents a different lodge or synagogue, some of which no longer exist.
The graves hold eight generations of New Haven Jews, he said.
Before stepping through the gates of one, he tucked in his tzitzis, the fringed end of his tallis katan. The action was a sign of respect to the people in the cemetery, who can no longer obey the commandment to wear the tallis, Greer said.
So far, Greer said, he and a couple of volunteers have identified, recorded and mapped 3,900 gravestones on Jewell Street. An additional 2,000 have been catalogued, but not mapped. Greer and the volunteers went stone by stone, translating Hebrew, and converting dates from the Hebrew calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The goal is to map all of the approximately 15,000 plots in all 44 Jewish cemeteries in greater New Haven.
As he moved between the grave stones, Greer pointed out where stones have toppled, tree limbs have fallen, and plants have grown over footstones. In all, 120 stones have fallen and need to be righted. Greer said that’s simply because of neglect; there’s no evidence of vandalism.
Greer pointed out “another very tragic problem”: About a dozen groundhog holes have been found in the cemeteries. “It’s unacceptable,” he said.
Greer wended his way through the cemeteries, coming out on Jewell Street, where the press conference soon began.
DeStefano recounted how Greer and other members of the Jewish community came to him last winter asking for improvements to Jewell Street. As soon as the snow thawed, the city put in new sidewalks, DeStefano said.
Tree-planting guru Chris Ozyck (at right in photo above) explained that the Urban Resources Initiative worked with the Jewish community to select appropriate trees for the street, which were then planted by men in recovery from drug abuse, and by high school students they trained.
Trees without a large canopy were chosen. Greer explained why: Kohanim, Jewish descendants of those who worked in the temple in Jerusalem, are to stay pure and are thus not allowed to be in a building with a dead body. Trees with large canopies that extend over a cemetery and over a sidewalk can create a sort of “tent.” Kohanim can’t walk under such a tree, since it’s then as if they’re in the same room with the corpses in the graveyard.
“This is a loving, respectful act,” state Rep. Dillon said of the cemetery improvements. “We stand on the shoulders of people who are buried here.”