The Jewish cemeteries of Newark are the last remnants of a Jewish community that once numbered 80,000 and worshipped at over fifty shuls and played at scores of fraternal lodges. Despite the affluence of the descendents of Newark's Jews, the West Ward Jewish cemeteries, hard by the Garden State Parkway, are characterized by vandalism, litter, and desecretion.
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Note, this tour did not include the Hebrew cemetery south of South Orange Avenue.
The West Ward Jewish cemeteries are set up differently from nearby Catholic and Protestant cemeteries. Rather than having a single, integrated cemetery with different sections, Newark's Jewish cemeteries consist of cemeteries once owned by independent burial societies that happen to be next to each other. The Jewish cemeteries were first used in the 1870s, but most of the graves are from the first half of the Twentieth century.
The burial societies were run by landsmenshaften, synagogues, unions, and fraternal groups like the IOBA and Arbeiter Ring. In 1920 there were over one hundred Jewish burial societies in Newark alone, whose members paid between $5 and $10 a year for the right to be buried when one's time came.
In terms of appearance, rather than broad allees and park-like expanses, Newark's Jewish cemeteries are crowded lots where graves have barely inches between them. Rather than featuring elaborate statuary that is intended to make the interred stand out, Newark's Jewish cemeteries have rows and rows of similar, though not necessarily modest, graves, each one no larger than the coffin that was laid there. The crowded conditions of Newark's Jewish cemeteries were dictated by economics, and not any religious belief about proximity of bodies.
One of the most interesting groups to found a cemetery was the Workman's Circle/Arbeiter Ring Cemetery. The Arbeiter Ring was, and is, a Jewish Socialist organization indifferent to religious Judaism and Zionism, but dedicated to the promotion of Yiddish culture and social justice. While this is a graveyard of socialists, and not necessarily the pious, most graves here are indistinguishable from graves in the synagogue graveyards. An exception is this memorial to two Furriers' Union members who were killed in New York in 1915.
Not all Jewish fraternal organizations were socialist. The International Order of Brith Abraham (IOBA) was non-political. In 1920 these organization had 352 lodges in New York City alone, and many hundreds more around the world. It is now largely forgotten.
As mentioned previously, Jewish graves do not attempt to display individualism or wealth like graves in Christian cemeteries do. This is not to say that Jewish graves are not elaborate. Many have symbolic and familial meaning. A tombstone that is a cut-off tree represents someone who died young; a lamb is a child; two hands in the "Spock Salute" represent a kohen. Notice the tree tombstone reproduced below, the grave records that this person was a son and brother, but not a father or a husband.
One of the most common and moving things to see on a Jewish cemetery tomb is a medalion of the deceased. The following two medalions were on adjacent graves. To me, one represents modernity and Americanism, the other tradition.
The West Ward Jewish cemeteries are not maintained well. There is litter everywhere and many graves have been knocked over. None of the elaborate gates are ever locked and many iron fences have been allowed to rust away.
The profitless duty of maintaining the cemeteries falls to Sandy Epstein, whose family founded a monument company in 1913. He reports that there are about six internments a year, down from 500 internments in the late 1960s.
The newest grave I saw in any of these West Side Cemeteries was from 2002 (and was written in Russian). This may surprise some, but many Russian Jews have settled in Newark, especially in the Ivy Hill apartments. Newark's only daily functioning shul is Mt. Sinai in Ivy Hill, the Ahavas Shalom synagogue in Broadway is only open for Shabbat.
Should you desire to know more of Jewish cemeteries, or wish to know if you have relatives interred here, please visit the International Jewish Cemetery Project
Please note, the West Ward of Newark has a high crime rate. These cemeteries are seldom visited and you will be in an extremely precarious position should someone want to attack you. The Newark Police Department offers a "safe day" for visiting on the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
J. Bennett November 2005 Permanent URL: http://www.newarkhistory.com/westwardjewish.html
Jacobs, Andrew. 2000. Jewish Newark's Urban Pioneers Rest Uneasily; The Dead, Left Behind in the Suburban Diaspora, Lay Amid a Landscape of Ravaged Monuments. New York Times, October 15, Section 14.