The Philadelphia area has numerous historic Jewish cemeteries, but this beautiful testament to Judaism’s deep local roots is often met with poor conditions: broken or fallen stones, uneven and unsafe ground, illegible inscriptions, and other damage.

How to viably restore and protect these sacred places into the future is a challenge debated by communities of all faiths, all over the country. A group of local Jewish volunteers decided to join forces and find an answer. Earlier this year, they created the Friends of Jewish Cemeteries (FJC), a special initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, to explore realistic strategies for improving poor conditions at mature properties, particularly in the oldest sections. While community clean-ups are invaluable, professional skills and equipment are necessary for extensively damaged areas.

“When neighbors and friends reached out because of the poor conditions at Har Nebo Cemetery in Oxford Circle, we knew we had to do better,” said State Rep. Jared G. Solomon, 202nd district of Philadelphia County, and a FJC advocate. “With the Jewish Federation and Friends of Jewish Cemeteries leading the charge, we as a community hope to chart a new course for how communities can repair, rebuild and reimagine Jewish cemeteries throughout our region.”

In tackling this grand-scale restoration problem, FJC decided to focus first on Har Nebo, Philadelphia’s oldest privately-owned Jewish cemetery and one of the city’s largest. Through this pilot project, FJC will fund, secure and oversee expert-level rehabilitation of a section of graves representing the most common problems found in cemeteries in disrepair. At its conclusion, the group will produce a multimedia how-to guide, documenting its lessons learned that could serve as a model for other groups.

Work is set to begin in the fall of 2021 and will include lifting and repairing headstones, clearing undergrowth and reinforcing the surrounding ground.

A specific section of the cemetery has been selected for restoration, and now FJC needs experienced genealogy hobbyists to help find their descendants. Walter Spector, a volunteer genealogist, is supporting the effort and hopes members of the community with research experience will join him in the work. There are also a variety of other on-site and in-home volunteer opportunities, such as assistance with fundraising, securing landscaping and stone repair supplies, publicity, and production of the guide.

“The popularity of genealogy research has brought newfound attention to historic and mature cemeteries as well as the escalating problems in many of them,” said Rich Blumberg, leader of FJC. “When you talk with others who share these concerns about sustaining our legacy, the task often seems beyond our reach. The goal of FJC and its pilot project is to challenge that notion.”

Those interested in learning more about genealogy research, saving historic cemeteries and honoring those at rest will have an opportunity to help clean up Har Nebo during a service day, sponsored by the Jewish Federation, on Sunday, October 17, 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. Volunteers will rake leaves, clip vines, pick up debris and participate in a memorial service for those interred at the historic site.

FJC’s pilot project goals include raising ongoing funds for further work at other area cemeteries, but Blumberg hopes that its success will extend far beyond that: “We want to raise awareness of the conservation needs of these special places, offer a pragmatic path to success and inspire others to join us.”

For more information about FJC, involvement opportunities and to see the list of graves scheduled to be worked on, visit jewishphilly.org/cemetery or contact Addie Klein, aklein@jewishphilly.org. To register for the cleanup day at Har Nebo on Oct. 17, visit jewishphilly.org/cemeterycleanup.