The dilapidated portion of Southwest Philadelphia's Hebrew Mutual Cemetery, which is reported to house veterans of the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, is one of the last areas still littered with trash. Before the Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries bought the half-acre of land in 2000, the area looked more like a landfill than a religious burial ground.
"Anything and everything you thought could be dumped in it was dumped," recalled Stanley Barer, president of the nonprofit association that has partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia to renovate the site.
The cemetery, located in the rear alleys behind 65th and Trinity streets, was established in 1855 by B'nai Israel Congregation, a synagogue comprised mainly of Dutch Ashkenazi Jews. Though their synagogue was located on Fifth Street above Catherine, they chose to bury their dead at the site, a wide open space at the time.
Much has changed since then. Houses were built and developments sprang up around the land, forcing people to drive through an alley just to visit the cemetery. Vandals littered the area with refuse, and damaged or even stole gravestones.
Today, the area is undergoing a major refurbishing by the preservation group. When all is said and done, the cemetery is expected to include grave markers for all the burial sites. The remaining original gravestones will be gathered and displayed on a memorial to the deceased.
"We're trying to make something that the Jewish community will be proud of," said Barer.
"They're not going to be proud of this," he added, referring to the current state of the grounds. "And they're not going to be proud of what was here before."
Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of the Board of Rabbis, said that honoring the dead is a strong Jewish value: "The Jewish people are committed to those living in this world and those living in the next world."
According to Mike Caulder, who is managing the project for Federation, the grass-roots fundraising is being sustained by a slew of relatively small individual donations.
"The contributions that have come in are $5 and $10 and $25. This is people just sending a check," he stated. "It's finally gotten to be enough that we can start to make it what [Barer's] dream was."
Aside from installing markers for each individual grave, Caulder expects the rest of the project to culminate in a month or two.
"That's what we're shooting for – to be done by the High Holidays," he said.
Ron Rizzo, a construction worker hired to help out with the site, said he is happy to be a part of rectifying the cemetery, even though he's not Jewish.
"I think that it's a great effort. These people are our history. Most of them died doing something for our country," said Rizzo. "To just forget about them in any way, to desecrate them like this, is the worst thing you could possibly do."