LilaTovCocktail: Ingredients: one part NE Ohio; two parts politics; two parts media, and one part each: culture, family & the Jewish community. Directions: Shake well.

Non-Jewish neighbors restore west side Jewish cemetery


By Lila Hanft, Cleveland Jewish News, 12/28/07

“From my earliest childhood, I have memories of walking by the Fir Street cemetery,” recalls Judge Raymond L. Pianka of the Cleveland Municipal Housing Court.

“It was the first cemetery I’d ever seen, and a number of the stones were written in Hebrew (and Yiddish), which was quite a cultural experience” for the young Catholic boy.

* * *
The Fir Street cemetery is at the heart of Cleveland’s Ward 17, where Pianka has lived his entire life. As city councilman for Ward 17 in the 1990s, he sought a solution to the cemetery’s deterioration. But it wasn’t until this year that Pianka was able to pull together all the pieces n money, volunteers, support and guidance n to repair the cemetery.

“It is a very old cemetery, and most of the families of the people buried there are gone,” he says. Headstones had fallen over or been pushed over. Neighbors wished it were better maintained, and there were occasional acts of vandalism.

In 1999, local historian Vicki Blum Vigil described the grounds of the Fir Street Cemetery as “more broken glass than grass.”

Several months ago, Pianka raised the initial funding for renovations from a small family foundation. Then he approached the neighborhood’s Lorain-Fir Block Club. “I spoke with people at the community block club, and they were enthusiastic” about cleaning up and repairing the property, he says.

Of the three founding Jewish congregations, only Park Synagogue is still in existence. Pianka consulted with Kenneth Anthony, executive director of Park, on a number of details before hiring landscapers to trim trees and a stonemason to raise the fallen gravestones.

Members of the nearby, newly renovated Calvary Reformed Church on W. 65th also joined the community project. On Nov. 17, Rev. Dean Van Farowe, his mother, and children joined Pianka and a group of volunteers, most of them non-Jews, at the cemetery, where they planted 1,000 daffodils and an equal number of tulips.

Vigil, the historian, was on hand to help out, as was Anita Rothschild, a descendant of the Rothschilds buried in the Fir Street Cemetery.

There’s more work to be done. Lorain-Fir block club recently received a $5,000 grant from the Community Connections program of The Cleveland Foundation, which Pianka says they’ll use to “have a landscape architect look at the place” and advise them on the planting of new ornamental trees. A new wrought iron gate is being designed by a craftsman in Transylvania.

“It’s a small way to honor our neighbors -- neighbors who have never given anybody a bit of trouble,” Pianka says, smiling.

Read the full story at the CJN website.

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Jill December 30, 2007 at 12:10 PM  

Lila - I was just reading in the History of Cleveland website (I forget the exact name of the site but it's got a big section on Jews in Cleveland) about a west side Jewish cemetery that it sounds like has coverage for keeping it up. Is that a different cemetery?

Lila Hanft January 5, 2008 at 7:26 PM  

Jill, I think all the Jewish cemeteries, including Fir St., do have some provision for maintenance -- through Federation at least, if there are no more congregations left to support it.

We wrote about the work done on the Fir Street cemetery in particular because the volunteers went beyond normal upkeep to restore and beautify the cemetery.

Actually, after the story came out, I discovered an error in Vicki Blum Vigil's book on Cleveland cemeteries. She'd written (and I'd repeated) that of the three congregations which founded the Fir St. cemetery, only Park Synagogue was still in existence.

But after the story came out, I was contacted by someone from Beth Hamidosh Hagadol-Heights Jewish Center who told me that not only was it one of the founding congregations, it had been paying 1/3 of the maintenance costs of the Fir St. cemetery for decades. They told me that Park pays another third, and the final portion is covered by Federation.

There are several other old Jewish cemeteries on the West side, I was surprised to learn surprised to learn in the course of writing this article. I guess that was all open land and not too far away at a time when there were Jews living in midtown, east of Perry St. (E. 22nd), around Case Ave. (E. 40th) and Willson Ave (E. 55th).

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