East Los Angeles is at least two freeway interchanges and several generations removed from today’s L.A. Jewry. But there the community’s early history rests eternally, amid well-worn bungalows, rusted chain-link fences and canopy-free, sun-bleached streets.
Head north on Downey Street across Interstate 5, and you’ll immediately be greeted by the tattered and peeling black-and-white sign of Beth Israel Cemetery, where hundreds of Jews have been buried during the past century and continue to be. Half a block north is Agudath Achim Cemetery, which similarly is operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary. Neither is regal or elaborate, mostly concrete crypts stacked side-by-side, only loose dirt for landscaping.
But between the two cemeteries is a more forgotten home. The wrought-iron gate, pinned shut with two Master locks, simply says “Mt Z.” Inside is Mount Zion Cemetery, rows upon rows of headstones baring menorahs and the Star of David, Feldmans and Ungers and Goldbergs and Rosens and Nefts and Pearlmans and Schwartzes and Raskins and Segelmans. Some of the crypts are tagged with graffiti, others simply cracked. It’s not maintained by a mortuary but by The Federation or, in essence, the whole Jewish community. It looks peaceful now, but throughout the years, the graveyard hasn’t always fared well.
“Jewish law commands that people honor the deceased,” a 1995 New York Times story began, “but the weeds thriving at Mount Zion Cemetery appear to have deeper roots than the local Jewish community, which long ago moved out of the neighborhood and stopped tending the graves.”
This section is toward the end of an article I have in this week’s Jewish Journal about the challenges fundraisers face in the new world of Jewish philanthropy. I thought this was a poignant example because there is nothing sexy about supporting the long-since dead—it’s not like providing aid in Darfur—but somebody has to do it.
The 2,000-word article ran as a sidebar to my profile of new Jewish Federation chairman Stanley P. Gold. (Sheesh, when I was at dailies, rare was the occasion when a front-page story waxed for 2,000 words, let alone a sidebar.) Let me know what you think.