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A community's resting place

March 30th, 2006

Former Perth Amboy Jews and descendants work to preserve cemeteries 

The Star-Ledger

By Beth Kressel

For the Star-Ledger

A small crowd gathered at the gates of the Hebrew Fraternity Cemetery in the Hopelawn section of Woodbridge.

But they weren't there for a funeral.

Their bear hugs, back slaps and cries of recognition were reminiscent of a high school reunion.  They pointed and shouted as they saw each other for the first time in decades.

Many, like Miriam Daitz Vogel of Tinton Falls, turned nostalgically toward ivy-covered headstones.

"Look, there's my first-grade teacher.  There's the butcher.  It's a walk down Smith Street," Vogel said, referring to one of the main drags in Perth Amboy.

The small group was on a tour last weekend of the cemetery sponsored by the Friends for Preservation of Middlesex County Jewish Cemeteries Inc., a nonprofit group formed about a year ago.

Mona Shangold, the tour guide, led participants through the graveyard --- the first stop on the two-cemetery tour.  The group also visited Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh Cemetery on Florida Grove Road in Perth Amboy.

"I don't know all the stories, but I can tell you a few," Shangold said, as she stopped before a structure engraved with the names of Sara and Kalman Davidson, who died within days of each other in 1909.

The structure is not actually a mausoleum, forbidden by Jewish law, but a glorified supply shed built above the twin graves.  It was once used for storing landscaping tools to maintain the grounds, she said.

"You can't even get to the entrance of the little house because it's so overgrown," Shangold said.

Encroaching ivy and fallen or leaning headstones are two of the reasons Shangold created the preservation group several months ago.

Shangold, a gynecologist who now lives in Moorestown, has greater ambitions than the occasional cemetery tour.

The preservation group, made up of present and past members of the Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh in Perth Amboy, hopes to revitalize the synagogue's two aging graveyards and create a self-supporting endowment for cemetery upkeep.

The group has raised $30,000 since October and has been talking to landscapers about beginning the cleanup, she said.

Beginning more than a century ago, a community of Jews threatened by pogroms in Eastern Europe escaped to America.  Some of them who lived in and around Vilna --- then a city in the Russian Empire, today Vilnius, Lithuania --- ended up together in Perth Amboy.

They thrived and grew for three or four generations in the city, Shangold said.  Just as she moved away, so did many of her generation, which is why preserving the cemetery is so meaningful, she said.

"We are really the last generation who grew up in Perth Amboy and knew everyone else," said Shangold, who helped to organize the tour.

The Jewish congregation that flourished through the 1960s can now barely muster the ten men, or minyan, required for daily services, said Shep Sewitch, 84, who is also vice president of the preservation group.

The only other synagogue in Perth Amboy now is Congregation Beth Mordechai, a Conservative temple founded in 1898 that now has about 100 members compared with the 500 to 600 families who prayed there in the 1950s and 1960s, said Louis Sher, 62, who is Beth Mordechai's vice president.

Compared with today's dwindling congregations, the numbers interred at the cemetery are overwhelming.  Shangold estimates there are a combined 1,000 graves belonging to Shaareh Tefiloh congregants at the Hopelawn and Perth Amboy graveyards.

The congregation has another plot at the Beth Israel Cemetery on Route 1 in Woodbridge, she said.

Shangold said she might like her own final resting spot to be among her childhood family and friends, right next to her father in the Hebrew Fraternity Cemetery.

But many of the group members said they planned to be buried elsewhere.

"Most of us belong to other synagogues.  If I were to be buried here, it would be near my parents, and there is no more room," said one woman.

Three more tours of the graveyards are scheduled for this year on April 23, on Mother's Day, May 14, and on Father's Day, June 18.

After that, Shangold might continue conducting the visits, which are free and open to the public if there is continued interest. 

 

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