By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – Rabbi Eliezer Greer and his wife, Rena, knew that one of the twins they were expecting would not be born alive. With several weeks before the April 2011 due date, the rabbi had time to choose a fitting burial site, and decided on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Greer returned from his heart-rending mission in April 2011 with new resolve. “I really wanted to do something with an impact,” he says, “so I decided to worry about the Jewish cemeteries in New Haven.”
A lifelong city resident and active in local Jewish communal affairs, Greer was especially concerned about the area’s Orthodox cemeteries, many of which were overgrown, poorly lit and fenced, and strewn with garbage. So he decided to walk every Jewish burial ground in the area, north to Bristol, east to Clinton, west to Orange – and everywhere in between.
For the next two years, with the support of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven (JCAGNH) board, Greer walked through all 49 Jewish burial grounds, recording names from some 26,000 gravestones for the newly created New Haven Jewish Cemetery Database.
On Oct. 20, the association will celebrate the achievement in an “unveiling” celebration of the new resource.
Greer is quick to point out that the project was a collaborative one. He started with a sketchy burial list drawn up by Rabbi Edward Cohen of West Hartford in the late ‘80s. JCAGNH executive director, Andy Hodes, arranged access to cemeteries owned by the various area synagogues. Esther Muroff of the Yeshiva of New Haven Synagogue designed and manages the database and mapping system. Fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish, and able to read Russian, Greer nearly single-handedly recorded all the names “in the heat of summer and cold of winter,” Hodes says. “Eliezer has reduced a lot of wear and tear on me and on Jewish cemetery chairs throughout the area.”
An independent non-profit corporation created in 2004, JCAGNH oversees the maintenance, security, and physical improvements of the 49 cemeteries and holds titles to eight of them. Run by a board of directors, the association receives funding from designated endowment funds managed by the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven.
“The support, help, and different abilities of the association board members have been invaluable over the last two years,” Greer says. “Each person has been doing different parts; this is simply my niche.”
With such a far-reaching project, there are sure to be some unusual stories to tell. Greer encountered a homeless man camped out in one of the cemeteries, and a coyote in another. There were many times when he had to shovel away snow in order to read headstones.
Greer eventually joined the JCAGNH board, invited in late 2011 by Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.
The online, searchable database is linked to the JewishGen global genealogy website, and Hodes and Greer have already fielded inquiries from people throughout the world. “Not a day goes by when I don’t send out information,” Greer says. “That’s what brings me the most satisfaction from this project.”
With help from Nolan’s Hamden Monument, Hodes and Greer are able to update the database as soon as a death is reported. Greer sight-checks new burials in the field at the end of every month.
Now the association is discussing next steps: renovation priorities, establishing a cemetery legacy fund with other Jewish communal organizations, convincing better-endowed synagogues to better maintain their cemeteries.
“I never thought, when I started, how massive an undertaking this would be,” Greer says. “To me, one of the best parts is that this project crosses all Jewish lines in the Greater New Haven community. It has created interactions and activity between different groups of Jews that otherwise might not exist. “This work is for the whole community and meant to last forever.”
The association hopes to get other Jewish communities to join the Greater New Haven database and mapping system so that it might serve as a national resource. Which, of course, will take a lot of walking, Greer says.
The Greater New Haven Jewish Cemetery Database can be accessed at http://yeshivanewhavensynagogue.org/cemetery.asp or www.jewishnewhaven.org.
Greater New Haven Jewish Community celebrates the new cemetery database: Sunday, Oct. 20, 10 a.m., L.W. Beecher Museum School of Arts & Sciences parking lot, 100 Jewell St., New Haven. Printed copies of the cemetery maps and database information will be available. For information contact Andy Hodes, Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven, (203) 387-2424, ext. 303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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