Three Problems with Jewish Cemeteries
25.11.2009, Communities of Eurasia
The Jewish community has three pillars to stand on: prayer in synagogues, Torah studies, and burial according to Jewish customs.
However, the tumultuous events that took place on the territory of the former Russian empire in the twentieth century (mass secularization, state policy regarding “eradication of religious prejudice”, the Holocaust) led to the only pillar remaining more or less widespread being the burial. Most synagogues were destroyed or repurposed; Torah studies were practically banned.
The situation changed little after the Soviet regime was liberalized and then fell. Synagogue prayer and Torah studies are still the lot of a very limited group of mainly elderly people, while people of all ages have use for cemetery services.
As a result it is the problems that are related to cemeteries that one and all Jewish community leaders are forced to deal with, whether they have a synagogue or not.
The main problems facing Jewish communities in this sector are as follows: “overpopulation” of cemeteries, providing care for the graves, and inability to hold a funeral according to Jewish tradition. All these are inter-related, all arising from the same cause – the abrupt decrease of Jewish population in the Russian empire and then USSR in the twentieth century, due to the Holocaust and mass emigration. We will attempt to show this by discussing each of the aforementioned problems.
Easiest to understand is the link between the disappearance (or sharp decrease) of Jewish population and lack of order at cemeteries. Usually the ones leaving are the young and middle-aged, and the old people staying behind often simply do not have the energy (not to mention the means) to sustain the necessary order. The lack of people ready to take care of the burial places leads to graves becoming overgrown with weeds in a matter of years, and the cemetery itself turning into something like littered wasteland. This relates mainly to cities with small or non-existent Jewish communities. The image of such a graveyard in the eyes of the people around it is well represented in the following extract on the Jewish cemetery in Borisoglebsk (Voronezh oblast): “lilac and maple densely populate all the graves; the iron gate from Peshkova street is bent and hacked up as though Schwarzenegger has spent a week mauling it; most of the stone memorials have been knocked down; gravestones are cracked, the surviving ones covered in traces of the popular graffiti fad; piles of household rubbish, syringes etc. are all over the cemetery.” Also, both in the period of Nazi occupation and (even more so) in the post-war period, gravestones were purposefully destroyed on a massive scale by using them to pave roads, for construction purposes etc.
Naturally, the situation is much better in larger cities with large Jewish communities, but even in Moscow, at the Vostryakovskoye cemetery, I have spotted neglected graves right by the central lane with its pompous burial places just in August 2008. Vandalism occurs often as well, as the cemetery is one of the few places were nationalists can easily identify Jews. According to data provided by the community of Perm, 750 gravestones were demolished there in 2006, another 1,850 were defaced and disfigured, and cemetery archives were destroyed.
As a cemetery’s desolation is usually followed by it being destroyed or “restructured”, the Jewish communities are doing all they can to prevent it. However, the only real course of action for them to take is organizing volunteer cleaning operations. These can have impressive scope. Thus, in September 2008 in Chisinau, several dozens of people representing the main Jewish organizations of the city cleaned a cemetery of approximately 27,000 graves. In June 2007, the Jewish community of Yekaterinburg held a cleaning operation on the Jewish part of the city’s Northern cemetery; 250 people lent a hand. Toyva Vaydislaver from Orhei, Moldova, cleaned the city’s desolate cemetery alone for six months in 2007, and cleared it fully, thus showing a unique example of volunteer work. The weekly newspaper Jewish Shtetl named T. Vaydislaver the Moldovan Jewish community’s Person of the Year. Also notable is the work of rabbi of Samarkand, Itzkhak Yakobson, who has initiated regular cleaning of the cemetery and an increase in the number of keeping personnel. Members of the Khevra Kadisha organization in Moscow, founded with the aid of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJC), have been cleaning the Vostryakovskoye cemetery since 2006. According to the media, cleaning operations have been held at the cemeteries of: St. Petersburg (April 15, 2007; May 6 and 18, 2008), Baranovichi (November 2006), Barnaul (May 18, 2008), Bobruisk (March-April 2005), Volgograd (October 17, 2004; April 26, 2007; October 20, 2007, April 4, 2008), Irkutsk (August 2004, October 2004), Kaliningrad (May 2006; June 6, 2006), Chisinau (August 19, 2007; April 13, 2008), Minsk (May 2007), Perm (May 2006), Rybinsk (May 8, 2008), Rybnitza, Semipalatinsk (June 2008), Tambov (July 11, 2004), Kherson (June 15, 2008) In Rybnitza, the work of saving the cemetery has even become the main idea uniting the community. Hillel and Sochnut together with the International Center for Jewish Education and Field Studies have been holding regular youth expeditions in Belarus since 2006, wherein Jewish youth put in order the old Jewish cemeteries of various towns. Earlier, such work has also been done at times by students at field schools in Jewish studies organized by the Sefer Center (e.g., in May 2004 students helped clean the Jewish cemetery in Samarkand).
In most cases, regular cleanings have begun since 2004-2006, that is, after the communal leaders had managed to get somewhat closer to solving the main social problems of the elderly Jews forming the backbone of every Jewish community in the FSU. As not all such reports make it to print media or websites, one could claim that such operations take place in many other cities as well.
However, the most significant expense concerning cemeteries has to do not with cleaning, but rather with renovating and maintaining in a good state memorials and service premises. An idea of this price can be gathered from the amount intended for the renovation of the Preobrazhenskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg – $5 million. This is where philanthropist businessmen take the lead. In July 2008, Roman Abramovich, a famous entrepreneur and one of the main sponsors of the FJC, granted funding to the FJC-initiated renovation of the House of Ablution at the Jewish (Preobrazhenskoye) cemetery in St. Petersburg and beautification of the cemetery itself. There has been in recent years a certain stirring in the activities of charitable foundations, usually established by representatives of the respective Jewish diasporas (expatriates’ communities). Most famous for its activities is the Dor le-Dor (Generation to Generation) Foundation in Chisinau: it is working on the development of the Chisinau Jewish cemetery. A full map of the cemetery has been made, it is being catalogued, the fences and lanes are being renovated, etc. In the years 2003-2006, the Foundation spent $200,000 on the beautification of the cemeteries. 17,000 out of the cemetery’s 24,000 graves have been identified and entered into the book, Necropolis. Although Dor le-Dor claims to be a charitable foundation, its website sports an advertisement for an enterprise with a whole set of services including face-lifts for gravestones, lighting memorial candles on birthdays and anniversaries of death, and saying the memorial prayer – all for $60.
Another notable organization is the Tajikistan Foundation, established in 1995. In 2007-2008 only it funded renovation of 180 graves, each costing $40-$50. As of July 2008, 80-90 more graves were intended for renovation. Moreover, the Foundation spends $6,000-$7,000 annually to maintain order at the Jewish cemetery in Dushanbe.
In Tashkent, a foundation of the same name, founded by Bukharian Jews, holds bi-annual (May 9th and Av 9th) cleaning operations at the Chagatay Bukharian Jewish cemetery. At the same time, local businessmen sponsored renovation of the fence at the same cemetery in 2003.
Occasionally, cemeteries are renovated and even maintained at the expense of individual expatriates (such was the case of the cemetery in Narodichi urban settlement in the Zhitomir oblast and Brichany settlement in Moldova).
However, currently the activities of charitable foundations and individual philanthropists are markedly local, and it is difficult to expect any change for the better in medium-term prospects. Rather the opposite – with regard to the recession and following “optimization of expenses” cemetery financing may be severely cut.
At the same time there is obviously no hope of state funding – most FSU states simply have no resources for such “luxuries” as tending graves (it is enough to remember that there are often not enough funds to maintain even the graves of soldiers who died in WWII), with the only exception of ancient Jewish cemeteries in what used to be the Pale of Settlement, which can be used as tourist sites. However, chances of such use are currently very low, as the infrastructure is unready to receive tourists interested in “Jewish flavor” and there would be a need for significant prior investment. This makes understandable the unwillingness of the authorities of Semipalatinsk in June 2008 to react to the Jewish community center’s idea of declaring the Jewish cemetery a historic monument.
Occasionally municipalities will, however, meet the communities halfway, although this is quite rare (mainly, as mentioned before, for lack of municipal resources). Thus, in 2008 the municipal authorities of Borisov, Belarus, lent the Jewish community equipment to remove from the cemetery some old trees which were about to fall. Chairman of the Bobruisk city executive council Dmitry Monakhov claimed at his meeting with community representatives in early November, 2007, that the municipality will take all necessary measures to prevent vandalism at the city’s cemeteries: they would erect fences around them and provide security guards. The municipality of Mogilyov also promised to help the local community clean up the cemetery in September 2006, with a committee on putting the Jewish cemetery in order established under the city executive council. As part of the 2008-2011 agenda of organizational events and resource base development in the ritual services field, the municipality of St. Petersburg has granted funding for reconstructions of lanes at the Jewish (Preobrazhenskoye) cemetery. Curiously enough, in this case the city governor V. Matviyenko suggested almost openly that the community take part in the financing of the renovation, saying during her visit to the Rosh ha-Shana reception 5767: “This is our memory, our traditions, our ancestors. Let us join forces and make it so the cemetery will not be an embarrassment!”
On October 25, 2007, Shneor Segal, the rabbi of Krasnodar, Yuriy Teytelbaum, the head of the Jewish community, and the city head Vladimir Yevlanov, signed an agreement to restore and preserve the Jewish cemetery.
Omsk oblast Interior Affairs Management head Viktor Kamertzel ordered a twenty-four hour security post to be stationed at the Jewish cemetery in Omsk in January 2008.
The Samarkand municipality granted funding to repair the crumbling wall of the Jewish cemetery as part of large-scale works of renovating the city in honor of its 2750th anniversary in August 2007.
The activity of the municipality of Comrat, capital of Gagauzia (an autonomous region in Moldova) is unique considering the general poverty of Gagauzia itself. In the late 2005, following a number of requests on the part of the Jewish community and with the aid of the Moldovan government, a new fence was erected surrounding the cemetery, garbage was removed, etc. A special service to attend to the cemeteries of the city was established.
In some cases, the Jewish cemetery becomes an obstacle to large-scale municipal construction or major business. The most famous such story has been developing in Baku since 2007. First, the graves of the Narimanovskoye cemetery were exhumed in September-November 2007, as the municipality had decided to build a highway there. Some of the gravestones were moved to the newly-founded cemetery on the outskirts of Baku, in Govsany. Although at first the government promised that the reburial would be financed in full, but then they paid $25 for each exhumation, leaving another $250 to be paid for a non-waterlogged spot at the new cemetery. The deceased who had no active relatives, were not reburied, their graves were destroyed. This led to a scandal resounding far beyond Azerbaijan. As a result, the mayor’s office of Baku was forced to issue a special declaration, claiming that the Narimanovskoye cemetery is being relocated in accordance with religious customs, that the society was not informed correctly and in time of the particular work performed, and that there was not enough transparency provided throughout the process. In 2008, rumors appeared that the same treatment was intended for the graves of the Jewish cemetery in Baku. This has similarly commercial roots, as the price of land in the neighborhood where the cemetery is located is $5000 per meter square.
In Sovetsk (Kaliningrad oblast of the Russian Federation) in 2007, a local businessman attempted to construct a dwelling house on the site of the Jewish cemetery. It was only after the oblast governor G. Boos interfered and prohibited construction that the situation was safely solved. An identical situation with a dwelling house and a shopping mall built on a cemetery site in Yekaterinburg in April 2007 led to the destruction of 350 graves. The construction was only stopped after regional authorities interfered.
The municipal architectural administration of Krasnodar granted the security enterprise Stek permission to build a sports and recreation complex on part of the cemetery in 2003. Although consequently the community put great efforts into beautifying the cemetery and even received praise from the municipality in late 2004, representatives of Stek still claimed ownership of the cemetery area in 2005, presenting their claims directly at a regular Sunday cleaning event. Later the enterprise sued the Jewish community of Krasnodar, demanding 20,000 rubles in moral damages. These demands were rejected in July 2006, and on August 2nd the Krasnodar municipality revoked its earlier edict which had permitted construction of a commercial building on the site of the Jewish cemetery.
In 1979-2001 and 2002-2006 secondary burial was carried out at the Jewish cemetery in Mogilyov, causing the destruction of several thousand graves. It took numerous appeals to legal authorities by community representatives for the burial to stop. And then, when in September 2006 a committee on bringing the Jewish cemetery to order was established under the Mogilyov city council, the alleged municipal support seemed to be simply covering the disbursement of the budget allocated to it. At least, a year afterwards the community members themselves said that the only work seen at the cemetery was when gravestones got damaged during tree-cutting.
In some places the cemeteries are viewed as profitable enterprises and become prey to raider attacks. Thus, in Chisinau in the late 2006, the state Center of Ritual Services attempted to gain access to the Dor le-Dor Foundation’s cemetery beautification fund. Having been refused, the officials went on to oust the Foundation from the cemetery in December 2006. The new administration introduced a fee for access to the grave catalogue (prepared by the Dor le-Dor Foundation) and paid entry passes for volunteers who came to clean neglected graves. Then fence sales caused scandal etc. Finally a criminal case for fraud and theft was initiated against the cemetery manager appointed by the Center of Ritual Services. A similar situation occurred several years ago in Malakhovka by Moscow, only in that case the attempt to usurp control over the cemetery was made by local criminals.
The chance of help from “roof” organizations is small (especially in view of the recession), as they consider the local communities responsible for cemetery repairs.
Therefore, all that is left to hope for is the pro-active position of the Jewish communities. So, the Jewish community of Omsk has recently initiated erection of a new fence around the Novoyevreyskoye (New-Jewish) cemetery; in Pinsk, a workers’ brigade was created in 2005, prepared to repair and renovate derelict memorials for a moderate fee, and compilation of a martyrology of the buried at the Pinsk Jewish cemetery has begun; the Borisov Jewish community has began documenting their cemetery; a guide to the Jewish cemetery in Bobruisk was published in June 2008; a stone fence was built around the cemetery and 2 tons of cement prepared for grave renovation in 2006 by the community of the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (PMR) Rybnitza.
Meanwhile, in places were communities are weak or non-existent, Jewish cemeteries are most likely doomed to become extinct. For example, in 2007, the Bukharian Jewish community in Baku failed to collect the $15,000 necessary to clean the cemetery; in February 2008, a fully derelict cemetery was accidentally found in Moldova, where the last burial was dated to 1987. Since, unfortunately, such “weak” communities are in the majority, and there is little hope for a sudden increase in state support, it is probable that the number of neglected (or “repurposed”) cemeteries will continue to grow.
“Overpopulation” of Jewish cemeteries led to paths being used as burial space. This is what the Jewish cemetery in Baku looks like: “The central lane of the cemetery, several years ago wide enough for automotive vehicles, has now narrowed because of new burials to a little path whose width is barely sufficient for a hand barrow. For the most part, there are not even such paths anymore: narrow difficult tracks lead to the graves of relatives and close ones.” However paradoxical this may sound, the situation arises from the sudden decrease in Jewish population. It was probably assumed that a disappearing ethnos will make do with existing graveyards. However, after the “Jewish renaissance” began in the 1990s, the Jewish population turned out to be larger than expected, and the problem of cemetery overpopulation became more than topical. As a result, a spot on the same Vostryakovskoye cemetery in Moscow will at times cost up to $10,000.
The only possible solution to this problem is for new spots to be allocated on existing cemeteries or new lots to be given to the Jews for Jewish cemeteries. In September 2005, it was agreed that the municipality of Dzerzhinsk (Nizhniy Novgorod oblast) would allocate a separate section of the cemetery for Jewish graves. Spring 2006 saw a new lot allocated in Kostroma. In June 2006 the Jewish community of Kremenchug received one for their cemetery. A new cemetery was opened in Sevastopol in January 2007.
The mayor of Samara, V. Tarkhov, promised to allocate new land for a Jewish cemetery in February 2008. President of the Republic of Udmurtia, Alexander Volkov, promised to support the request of the Jewish community of Udmurtia’s capital Izhevsk to grant a lot for a Jewish cemetery, when he met with the leaders of the community in April 2008.
There are examples of the opposite as well. Thus, the Jewish community of Bryansk has been struggling to no avail for a cemetery lot for several years.
However, the fact that a lot gets allocated does not necessarily mean that there will appear a Jewish cemetery on it in the close future. For example, let us discuss the situation with the new Jewish cemetery in Moscow. The Moscow municipality passed a resolution in February 1997, “On granting the Jewish community of Moscow the use of the estate at Borovskoye highway, 634 (Western administrative region) for the purpose of building a cemetery and a ceremonial complex”. The resolution determined that a lot of 6 hectares was to be given to the community for the purpose of building a cemetery in 1997-1998. It specified that should the lot remain unused for two years, the Moscow Land Committee would suggest further use for it. The community could not use this chance (perhaps due partly to the default in 1998), but the authorities finally decided not to take the estate away (or maybe there were simply no other claimants).
On December 31, 2002, the municipality of Moscow passed another resolution on constructing a Jewish cemetery, naming the end term of the construction December 31, 2005. The original plan was that in 2003 the construction documents would be prepared; bidding to choose a building organization would take place, etc. In 2005 the final term was moved again, this time to December 31, 2009. However, as of early 2008 there had been virtually no work done. To a large extent this delay is due to the complicated relations between the two participating Jewish organizations: the FJC (which lobbied the resolution) and the Jewish religious community of Moscow, part of the KEROOR (which managed to join the project in February 2003). One of the main points of argument was the FJC’s suggestion to build the cemetery at their own expense without waiting for government funding. As the KEROOR even then had financing problems, accepting this suggestion would for them basically mean that the FJC would receive full control over the cemetery, which the KEROOR obviously could not agree to, so they preferred to wait for the state to grant funds. They claim that the necessary amount is already built into Moscow’s 2009 budget.
Future allocation of new lots for cemeteries will be conditioned both by the lobby resources of the Jewish community, and the deciding officials’ estimate of its quantity. As the size of FSU communities remains small and will probably continue to decrease, probably it will be increasingly difficult to find new estates. It is more probable that Jews will need to be buried in general cemeteries with no regard for the ritual anymore.
Even though Jewish traditional burial is often the only way to reunite people who became assimilated in the Soviet times when learning anything about Judaism and the Jewish people was extremely difficult, it is very rarely done.
There can be several answers to the question why. The first and seemingly most natural one is that over the 70 years of assimilation the Jews have forgotten the Jewish burial customs. However, even if that is true (even though according to reports by Judaism supervisors of the Religious Cults Committee, replaced in 1966 by the Religion Committee, virtually all surviving communities practiced the burial rite throughout the period) there have been many efforts in the past 20 years to remind the former Soviet Jews of this and other customs through agitation, educational literature, etc.
Another possible answer is the lack of necessary equipment and money to buy it. Indeed, many Jews are not very well off financially, leading them and their relatives to accept state-provided burial services, which imply cremation as it is the cheapest option. However, the Jewish communities have repeatedly offered to bear burial expenses (so, according to FJC president A. Boroda, the FJC offers free transport, a discount off the price of a location etc., all to “outbid” the cremation option).
As for the necessary infrastructure, a cooperation agreement was signed on August 4, 2007, between the FJC and the Military-Memorial Company (VMK). It was suggested that cooperation with a company with approximately 300 branches in 76 regions of Russia would allow for the obligatory minimum of halakhic burial procedures in cities and regions lacking rabbis. Despite all this, only 380 people were buried according to Jewish customs in Moscow and its oblast in 2007, and as for the almost year-old agreement with the VMK, 58 people have used its services so far.
Another possibility is that of legal problems. It is no secret that the legal regulations in the FSU stipulate, among other things, compulsory autopsy. Overcoming these obstacles takes time, significant amounts of it in fact. Even in Moscow until recently the relatives would have to wait for two weeks for permission to refrain from performing the autopsy (possibly they still do). Naturally, many refused to wait that long. There will probably be no change in this issue as the authorities will not compromise in this for sanitary, epidemiologic, and forensic reasons.
However, this is far from the whole truth. People can be taught and the tradition rekindled, funds for burial can be found, changes in regulations can be lobbied. But all this can only be done with mass demand for the service. The lack of demand has also been caused by mass emigration to Israel, the USA, and Germany. Many of those who strived to preserve their Jewish lifestyles have emigrated. As for the remaining ones, most of them (according to some estimates – up to 90%) are “social Jews”, attracted to the Jewish organizations by benefits or bonuses of some kind. These people have a rather small “Jewish component” which is usually limited to love for Jewish “stars” of the Soviet period, memories of real or imaginary cases of anti-Semitism, worry for the fate of Israel, etc. Most of them are unwilling to pay for burial, or to lead exhausting battles with state officials on the issue of refusing autopsy and waiting less for the permission.
The situation could only change if the community was radically restructured, replacing today’s paternalistic model with a union of pro-active people who feel Jewish. A usual change of generation will not help, as today’s consumers will be replaced by new ones.