Feature Stories

Headstone count: Computerized cemetery inventory in New Haven

Eliezer Greer at the Jewell St. Cemetery | Photo credit: Thomas MacMillan

By Cindy Mindell ~
NEW HAVEN – A new centralized database will make it easy to navigate the 44 Jewish cemeteries throughout the New Haven area.
Created by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven (JCAGNH), the community resource will be completed by the summer. Established in 2004 with a seed-money loan provided by the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, the JCAGNH is housed in the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven but works independently.
The Jewish community in New Haven dates back to the 1830s; some 14,000 individual gravesites have been entered into the database, with several thousand more to be added.
“We are quite excited about this project,” says JCAGNH president Andy Hodes. “We and other local Jewish organizations get several calls every month from genealogists and others throughout the U.S. and beyond, seeking information about deceased relatives.”
The cemetery association hopes that area funeral homes will link to the new database.
“For anyone looking for grandparents or great-grandparents, it’s all now online so you can see where Grandma Rose was buried back in the late 1800s,” says Bob Goodman, president of the JCAGNH. “It’s a wonderful tool for genealogical research, a real mitzvah.”
Over the past year, JCAGNH board member Rabbi Eliezer Greer and several other volunteers walked the cemeteries, recording information from the gravestones and drawing maps. Working from cemetery maps recorded in the ‘90s by Lewis Goldfarb of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven and Rabbi Ed Cohen of Young Israel of Hartford, the group was able to fill in missing information and correct erroneous translations. The information and maps were input into the online database by a volunteer IT professional.
JCAGNH co-founder and board member Stephen Saltzman has been involved with Jewish cemeteries since 1967, when he attended a meeting of the Workman’s Circle on Legion Avenue in New Haven. As a young attorney, Saltzman was asked to write a trust for the organization, and suggested that when membership dropped below 18, the Jewish Community Council (predecessor of the Jewish Federation) would step in to help manage the cemetery and other assets.
When Saltzman became chair of the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven in 1992, he learned that the Workman’s Circle cemetery and other Jewish cemeteries throughout the area had long been neglected.
Indeed, the association has taken over the care of a dozen Jewish cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair and that no longer have sources of funding for upkeep and repair. Many cemeteries in the area have not been maintained for the last 10 or 20 years, says JCAGNH board member, Rabbi Eliezer Greer, who estimates another $50,000 to $75,000 worth of work over the next five years.
For Saltzman, the cemetery association is a labor of love. “I don’t have any personal interest in the welfare of our cemeteries; I own a plot in Rhode Island,” he says. “But Sydney Perry [executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven] has spoken about the Torah-based motivation to take care of cemeteries, but I’m not that religious. When I started volunteering in the community, I felt like I was picking up a 4,000-year-old chain of Judaism. When I put it down again, I want to make sure that it’s at least as strong as when I picked it up.”
“In Judaism, the biggest mitzvah you can do is ‘Kavod HaMes,’ taking care of and respecting the dead, because a deceased person can’t thank you,” says Greer. “The database project is also a huge mitzvah for those who don’t live here and are looking for their loved ones.”
When completed, the database will be posted on a new Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven website. To explore the database at its temporary home: www.yeshivanewhavensynagogue.org/cemetery.asp

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