When Eliezer Greer’s wife lost one of two twins in childbirth, he didn’t want to ask God, “Why? Why this one?”
He decided to take on a project instead. He began to walk the Jewell Street cemeteries. They were in bad shape, the buried poorly documented. Would a tiny child buried here today be able to be found by a loved one or a distant relative on a quest in 50 years? Greer wondered. A hundred?
Two and a half years later, Greer’s project reached its culmination: the New Haven Jewish Cemetery Database was unveiled in a quiet, heartfelt ceremony that drew 25 people Sunday morning to the parking lot of the Beecher School.
It sits across from the Jewell Street cemeteries’ 16 separate burial grounds and their rolling hillsides full of grave markers.
Greer had found his project, and then some.
“This is the first-of-its-kind-in-the-country” detailed mapping system to enable relatives, family, friends, and scholars to locate graves, Greer said in brief remarks.
You can access the site either through the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven (JCAGNH) or directly here.
Greer began his labor of love, respect and self-healing intending to work only at the major burying grounds at Jewell Street and in East Haven. Eventually the project led Greer to the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven. Stephen Saltzman and Robert Goodman founded the society nine years ago to begin to reverse the physical deterioration of scores of cemeteries, many created over the past century and a half by small Jewish fraternal organizations or tiny synagogues, now long gone or absorbed into larger institutions.
Not only was the grass overgrown at many sites. The records had deteriorated.
Board members wondered: When the last two 90-year-old members of a fraternal organization pass away, who will take care of the graves they have been responsible for?
So the JCAGNH has acquired at least nine burial grounds and counting over the last decade.
The JCAGNH had also been planning to create a database, but centered on New Haven by and large.
“Nothing like what he [Greer] has done,” said Saltzman.
In his peregrinations Greer braved at least one coyote, ice (you have to chip away in winter to read the stone), and summer heat for at least three or four hours a week on the project.
The labor of documentation brought him to many a small, deserted plot with pad, pen, and ritual: You’re supposed to tuck in your tzit-tizit, or daily garment fringes denoting mitzvot or good deeds, because the dead are not able any longer to do mitzvot.
All told Greer documented and mapped 49 cemeteries that hold the remains of approximately 26,000 Jewish dead.
The cemeteries cover south central Connecticut from Madison to Moodus, from Deep River to the Havens.
A printed document distributed on Sunday shows the dead in the geographical order they reside in their respective necropolis. The online database is the easiest to use.
You simply look up the “Goldberg” you are looking for, Greer explained, and it’ll tell you the cemetery.
“Anywhere you are, it’ll tell you how to get there” to pay your respects, Greer added.
Greer said he has been most moved by the phone calls and emails he now receives weekly from people across the country using the database to find their buried loved ones or relations.
One woman called from Rhode Island. She had been put in foster care as a child and never knew her father. Greer helped her look on the site to find a sister, and step by step, identified that her father was buried in the cemetery of the Hebrew Free Burial Society section of the Brocket Place Cemetery in East Haven.
The database has also scrupulously shown how synagogues and their burial grounds were subsumed into other synagogues, along with name changes that might be confusing to those searching.
For example, if you knew relatives were buried in the cemetery of the Rose Street Shul, now long gone from the Hill, the database will inform you that that synagogue and its dead came into the care of Westville’s Beth El Keser Israel, and it will lead you there.
Through a new feature of the site, as the monument companies and funeral homes process burials, they are in touch with the association, and each new burial is entered, said JCAGNH Director Andrew Hodes
Greer received many congratulations and a plaque of appreciation for honoring the dead and for creating a historical document of importance.
As Greer and Hodes left the Jewell Street cemeteries—which include the burial grounds of the Independent Vilner Lodge, the Orchard Street Shul, the Warshaver Society, and the Columbus Lodge among others—Hodes pointed down at the foot marker near the fence: Sylvia Greta Olinsky.
“She was my teacher supervisor, when I was training, [to be] a student teacher,” he said, at the long-gone old Scranton School on South Frontage Street.