After the Los Angeles Times recently published a piece by Hector Becerra on the deplorable conditions of the Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles (the subject of a Jewish Journal investigation in the May 10, 2013, issue, as well), I joined with others in the Jewish community to express my disgust — not only over the conditions of the cemetery but also over the fact that leaders of our community knew about the problem and chose to ignore it.
I wrote about the shandah (shame) of the cemetery’s sorry state in my regular blog at jewishjournal.com. The blog got a huge response as my explicit language touched a lot of nerves. I described how hundreds of headstones are either broken in pieces or lying on the ground. Moreover, many graves have no headstones at all. The dead lay there nameless, as if they never existed. In addition, graffiti desecrates other tombstones, and about half the estimated 7,000 gravestones that are still standing upright need to be remounted to their base or they will fall, as well. The conditions are due both to the elements and vandalism over the years.
According to Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, who has been organizing volunteers and working nonstop since the Times article came out last month, most of the gravestones are more than 70 years old.
The cemetery was abandoned by its owner, Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth, more than 40 years ago. Since then, The Jewish Federation has taken responsibility for this cemetery. Although The Federation claims no ownership, it has paid about $1,000 a month for its upkeep, according to Richard George, director of Home of Peace Cemetery (the cemetery next door). The Federation also paid to cut down trees a few years ago due to rat infestation and foliage problems. In addition, Federation organized a cleanup of the garbage at the cemetery in 2011. However, that is where Federation’s responsibility has stopped and where my outrage begins.
The Federation has known about the shameful conditions of the cemetery and basically chose to stop short of making it right. Don’t our brothers and sisters buried at Mount Zion deserve better? Or do we just ignore them, because they rest in a poor cemetery in East Los Angeles, where Jews don’t live anymore, and there are very few living relatives left to complain about the conditions?
What kind of religion and people are we? Is this how we treat our dead — lying in broken pieces, forgotten, while community leaders just hope the problem goes away? It’s a shandah.
What does this teach our young? I thought respect for the dead was a priority in the Jewish religion. We have specific instructions on how to watch over the dead, to clean their bodies, to bury them, to sit shivah, to say Kaddish and to remember them. What’s the point of all of this if we just leave their gravestones in pieces and their graves shattered?
The Federation claims in conversations with Rabbi Greenwald that no donor is interested in stepping up to the plate to pay the estimated few hundred thousand dollars to fix the graves. Don’t our dead deserve to rest in peace?
Federation head Jay Sanderson was quoted in the Los Angeles Times article saying, “It’s an interesting moral dilemma if you think about it. We try to do the best that we can do. We can do more, yes. But the question is, what are we not going to be doing if we do that?”
I respectfully suggest that honoring our dead is neither a negotiation nor a trade-off; it is an absolute. I humbly request that we all join in making this a communitywide duty. This communal shandah must be fixed immediately.
If you want to see the condition of the cemetery for yourself, Rabbi Greenwald will lead a tour on May 19, 11 a.m., at 1030 Downey Road, Los Angeles, 90023. Meet outside of the cemetery gates. Please send your tax-deductible contributions to: Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles — Mount Zion Restoration Project, 219 W. Seventh St., Suite 206, Los Angeles, CA 90014.