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Jewish Journal

Funds needed for Mt. Zion gravesites

by Jared Sichel

October 9, 2013 | 9:36 am

Construction crews at Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles repair a headstone as part of a $700,000 project to improve gravesites damaged by vandalism and earthquakes. Photo by Jared Sichel

Construction crews at Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles repair a headstone as part of a $700,000 project to improve gravesites damaged by vandalism and earthquakes. Photo by Jared Sichel

Harry Lenzer’s massive headstone lay flat on his grave, fallen and cracked in three pieces, for who knows how long — maybe years. 

But as of Oct. 3, Lenzer’s burial site joined the handful of others that have been fixed since June as part of the restoration project at Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where nearly 7,000 Jews are buried and approximately 1,000 gravesites need repair work.

“There’s activity. The [construction] trucks are coming in the entire time,” said Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, the lead organizer of the restoration project and co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles.

Greenwald has been working feverishly since April to raise funds for the cemetery. Progress was slow until Shlomo Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, donated $250,000 in late May after visiting the cemetery.

In addition, two other donors, real estate developer Izek Shomof and businessman Adi McAbian, each donated $25,000, and another real estate developer, Michael Fallas, gave $10,000.

Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery — the organization Greenwald formed to handle donations — has raised $300,000 to date, he said. According to its Web site (restoremtzion.com), the organization needs to raise $700,000 to repair all of the damaged graves and headstones.

For years, vandals and neighborhood gangs have easily trespassed onto the cemetery at night, kicking over headstones and firing bullets into them, often destroying the elegant, youthful photos of the deceased that are a part of many of the headstones. 

Immediately after Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery received Rechnitz’s gift, Greenwald hired MDM Builders Group to repair the site’s crumbling fences, replacing entire sections and lining the perimeter with barbed wire on top of the fence. Ending the vandalism, said David Librush, vice president of MDM, was the first task before any actual repair on the graves and headstones could begin.  

Greenwald said there has been no more vandalism since the time the fence was finished in June. There have been other preventative efforts as well: Greenwald asked the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to fly their helicopters over the cemetery and shine lights on the area when on night patrol nearby. They agreed and have been doing so for the last several months, Greenwald said.

Librush said the vandalism appears to have ceased, and now he and his crew are working full time to return the cemetery to an acceptable state as quickly as possible. Librush, a friend of Greenwald, said that the company took on the Mount Zion project at cost. 

As the two men walked through the cemetery on a recent warm afternoon, they pointed out the graves that used to have cracked and sinking concrete, some with such severe damage that one could see into the grave. Now they have completely new concrete beds. 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles assumed responsibility for Mount Zion Cemetery in 1969 after its original owner, Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth, was no longer able to maintain it. Over the past decade, Federation has supported it with about $25,000 annually.

For at least the past 10 years, Federation has given Home of Peace — a cemetery adjacent to Mount Zion — about $1,000 per month to perform routine maintenance on the cemetery, which opened in 1916. Federation spends an additional $13,000 per year on various other projects for the cemetery, according to Ivan Wolkind, Federation’s chief operating and financial officer. 

Since late spring, Wolkind and Greenwald have worked closely on many aspects of the project. Before beginning repair work on the graves, Wolkind said, they hired an architect to plot every grave, complete with the name and the condition of the bed and headstone. This allows MDM to know exactly how much work every plot at Mount Zion needs.

“We are working on the most seriously damaged and needy graves first,” Wolkind said in a phone interview with the Journal

One of the seriously damaged graves, which Greenwald pointed out, is that of Morris Magid, who passed away in 1930 at age 54. Marc Magid, his grandson, visited the grave for the first time about two months ago.

“I could stick my hand into the middle of his gravesite because the concrete had broken,” said Magid, 51. “It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be like that.”

He added that vandals also knocked off or shot off an image of his grandmother’s face on her grave. 

Phyllis Shallman, another Los Angeles resident, has six ancestors buried at Mount Zion, which has not had any burials for at least six years. The headstone of her uncle, Robert Abrams, lies on the ground. Half of his picture is missing. Shallman took her parents to the cemetery about 13 years ago, and visited again herself this year, on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I can just tell you it’s a horrific thing to see so many headstones pushed off and shot at,” she said.

Greenwald said that because it’s not feasible for everybody to come to the cemetery, Friends of Mount Zion posted a video about the cemetery on its Web site so that people can “understand the scope of the damage and the work that’s being done.”

Soon, Greenwald, Wolkind and Librush hope to have the burial places of Magid, Abrams and everyone else at Mount Zion fixed.

“It’s just a matter of not running out of funds,” Librush said.

Wolkind said that he and Greenwald plan to reach out to major donors in the Jewish community and to encourage synagogues to spread the word. 

“It’s a real need, and it’s a need that I believe we will fund 100 percent,” Wolkind said. “We will fix the problem.” 

To donate to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, visit restoremtzion.com or send checks, payable to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, to 219 W. Seventh St., Suite 206, Los Angeles, CA 90014.

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