Shlomo Rechnitz had heard about the Jewish cemetery in East Los Angeles, about its hundreds of toppled headstones, cracked tombs and the graffiti scrawled over some of its monuments.
In late May, he decided to see for himself. He agreed to take a tour of Mount Zion with a group that ended up including Moshe Greenwald, a rabbi who had taken a special interest in trying to restore the cemetery. Rechnitz said he didn’t get far before he was overwhelmed by the derelict conditions.
“Halfway through, I said, ‘I’ve seen enough. This is just depressing me,’” Rechnitz recalled Tuesday. “It was a shocking experience.”
There, in the middle of the cemetery, the local entrepreneur and philanthropist pulled out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $250,000 to begin repairing Mount Zion. The gift, first reported by the Jewish Journal, brings to more than $300,000 the funds raised since the Los Angeles Times published a story in late March about the conditions inside Mount Zion.
Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles -- which has led the effort to restore Mount Zion -- said he hopes $700,000 can be raised to properly repair the cemetery, though there would be other ongoing costs after that.
Greenwald said several people came forward to help, including businesspeople and real estate developers who gave donations. He said he even got a call from the L.A. Archdiocese, and that he hopes to speak to local church leaders to get the word out about the problem of vandalism.
Greenwald said the initial work of repairing fences and securing the perimeter of Mount Zion could begin in a week or two. He said some contractors, including monument companies, have offered to do the work for cost.
Much of the damage at the cemetery has reportedly been caused by vandals, but seismic activity has also exacted a toll. Greenwald said 349 fallen headstones were counted, and many of the horizontal tombs or “ledgers” of the graves are cracked, some with gaping holes.
Eastside neighborhoods like East L.A. and Boyle Heights used to be multicultural landing spots for transplants from the East, from across the Pacific and, more recently, from Mexico. At one point, they were also home to one of the largest Jewish communities outside of New York. East L.A. and Boyle Heights’ nearly dozen cemeteries are testaments to this era, with burial grounds for the Chinese, Japanese, Serbians and Jews dotting the neighborhoods.
Greenwald said that being based in downtown, so geographically close to the L.A. Jewish community’s Eastside past, he felt an obligation to try to do something about the cemetery’s situation.
“In Jewish tradition a cemetery is called beit hachaim, which means a house of life. A cemetery is a sacred ground,” he said. “And as a rabbi and a Jew and a human being, I could not in good conscience turn away from such a travesty and devastation. These were people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children, and they deserve better.”
Some other graves have headstones that are still standing, but which are not anchored down. Throughout Mount Zion, rounded enamel photographs of the dead are scattered on the ground, apparently pried off or even used as target practice.
Mount Zion was opened in 1916 by a burial society that provided free burials for poor Jews. But in 1969 the society sent a letter to the Jewish Federation, a philanthropic nonprofit group, saying it would no longer be able to operate Mount Zion.
The Jewish Federation and the adjoining Home of Peace Cemetery assumed responsibility for looking after the cemetery. Jay Sanderson, the president of the Jewish Federation, said about 20 years ago the federation sent letters to all known living heirs of Mount Zion’s dead. But it turned out almost all were elderly people living on fixed incomes, he said. Most if not all of those people are now dead.
Sanderson said it’s also unclear who actually owns the cemetery, something Greenwald said he’s trying to determine. Some county records suggest it is the defunct burial society, but both Sanderson and Greenwald said they believe that may no longer be the case.
Sanderson said that over the decades interest in repairing the cemetery has risen only to quickly fade. He said the recent donations to repair Mount Zion were a hopeful sign.
“For the first time in 50 years, it looks like the engagement actually has legs and there may be a long-term solution to the cemetery,” Sanderson said. “Rabbi Moshe Greenwald took this on with a real passion and he was able to identify several donors, but specifically this one donor who immediately wrote a quarter-million-dollar check.”
Sanderson said there needs to be an endowment created and funded to care for the cemetery long term. Just to provide a full-time presence on Mount Zion to keep it secure could cost about $100,000 a year, he said. The Federation is working with Greenwald to try to get others to help care for the cemetery, both in the short and long term.
Rechnitz said he is determined to help create a fund to provide continued maintenance and security for Mount Zion. His grandfather is buried next door at Agudath Achim, but because he was near the front of that cemetery, Rechnitz said he never had to walk toward the back -- where even from across a fence he might have beheld Mount Zion’s poor shape. He said when he prepared to hand over his check he told Greenwald there was only one thing he required.
“I said, ‘I’m giving you this check but with one condition. That is that the work has to start right away,’” Rechnitz said. “In Jewish law, honoring the dead precedes other commandments. It is the most important commandment. The thought of having to wait here just doesn’t work.”