Cemetery Restoration: One Congregation’s Story
by Max J. Goodman
It was October of 2010. I was standing in Bradford, Pennsylvania’s Beth Israel Cemetery at the base of my parents’ headstone. The wind was swirling, the temperature was falling, snow was coming. I looked up at the dead tree leaning ominously over the headstone and thought, “Why doesn’t someone cut down that tree before it comes crashing down on my parents’ stone.” As I looked around, I realized I was the only one there, so that someone was me.
With that in mind, I sent a letter to each of the 30 members of Temple Beth El in Bradford, where my family has been in business since the 1930s. I also used word of mouth to spread the idea of a cemetery restoration project within the community. A small savings account from the temple served as seed money, growing quickly thanks to contributions from synagogue members, city residents, and Bradford city leaders, among others. A committee of six from Temple Beth El was appointed to oversee the initiative and has identified a number of different restoration projects within the cemetery.
A bit of history: Piecing together various historic records it appears that the cemetery dates back at least as far as 1883, four years after the city of Bradford was incorporated. Bluma, daughter of Tzvi, died on December 3, 1883, and has the oldest headstone there. At the time, the majority of the obituaries printed in The Bradford Era identified the site as “The Hebrew Cemetery,” but in 1957, an obituary for Harry Metz noted the place of interment as Beth Israel Cemetery. The Goodman surname is the most populous with 20 burials associated with it. In the early years, Bradford had one synagogue: Beth Israel. A second synagogue, Beth Zion, joined it later, and in 1962, the two congregations merged. Today, Temple Beth El oversees the cemetery.
With financial and volunteer support from the synagogue kehillah, Bradford’s wonderful ecumenical community and local builder Rick Yovichin, who helped us translate our dream into a reality, we’ve fully restored a stone wall, the traditional gate, and the original fence. We’ve also incorporated a meditation garden — a gan hagah — that includes two granite benches surrounded by flowers. It’s a wonderful spot for quiet remembrance and a reminder to me each time I visit of just how much the Fifth Commandment — “Honor thy father and thy mother” — has taught me about how to live my life and how much I truly loved and respected my parents.
The final phase of our project calls for us to repair and restore the cemetery’s 500 headstones, as well as to devise a plan to maintain the cemetery for future generations. During the winter I hope to locate individuals whose family members are buried in the cemetery. I am grateful to Molly Popiel Lindahl, a genealogical researcher with the Bradford Landmark Society, for all her help with this facet of the project.
In the meantime, though, we dedicated our newly restored cemetery on Rosh HaShanah 5773 with more than 100 people present. It was a milestone event for our small, rural community and a fitting tribute to those who sustained the congregation in earlier times and are now buried there. Our next event, scheduled for Rosh HaShanah 5774, will include a walk through the cemetery, a talk about its history, and stops at several of the restored stones.
Some day in the future, I will be buried in Bradford’s Beth Israel Cemetery, next to my parents, my grandfather and my great-grandfather. Before that time arrives, though, I look forward to the successful completion of this restoration project.
Max J. Goodman is a third-generation member and a past president of Temple Beth El, Bradford, PA, as well as an active member of the city’s business and civic communities. His father was instrumental in overseeing the construction of the synagogue’s building.