During the early morning hours of Tisha B’Av exactly 50 years ago, as I was waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I frantically tried to apply my knowledge of CPR to my father, Meyher Felstein, who was experiencing cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, my dad and best friend died several hours later. I was 19, an only child, and the experience of mourning my father at such an early age had a profound impact on my life.
I began a career in the death care industry, arranging between 125 to 160 funerals per year. Fifty years and more than 7,500 funerals later, I have become aware of a widespread problem.
Jewish cemeteries are becoming abandoned and going into disrepair all throughout the country. Toppled headstones, feral animals, vandalism and overgrown shrubbery — all signs of neglect — are a mark of shame for us as a Jewish community.
That is why I started the Jewish R.E.A.C.H organization. R.E.A.C.H stands for:Restoring/Educating/Administering/Cemetery/History. Our mission is to identify cemetery sites in abandonment or disrepair, give advice on restoration and teach cemeteries how to prepare for the future.
We feel the central issue today is a lack of understanding and education about the importance of the cemetery in the life cycle process. For this reason, we focus on educating our youth and taking them to visit the cemetery sites in a way that is non-threatening.
Contrary to what you might assume, children are not scared of cemeteries. They are inquisitive, curious and raise fascinating questions. In every visit that we have arranged for children, we have learned a new idea or had to address a novel issue. The youth are our future; when we are gone, they will carry the torch of generational responsibility.
My dad always said that we should provide every individual the same treatment — no matter who they were or what their status was. That is why at Jewish R.E.A.C.H. we also help non-Jewish cemeteries: In the Washington area, we are helping the restoration of what is known as the Eastlawn cemetery on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, and we have been asked by the community of the Southeast District of Columbia to help restore the historic Woodlawn Cemetery.
Let me be blunt, as my father advised. We must not let cemeteries become cow pastures.
We need to show the proper respect to our ancestors, and ensure that our cemeteries — especially where Jewish communities have moved elsewhere — are taken care of. And now is the time to reach out to these communities and get them involved.
On Tisha B’Av, which will be observed this weekend, we mourn the loss of our ancient temple. On this day, let us commit ourselves to the preservation of our heritage by ensuring that Jewish cemeteries all throughout the country are maintained properly, honoring our ancestors and keeping their memories alive.
Harley Felstein is the chairman and founder of Jewish R.E.A.C.H. (jewishreach.com).