CEMETERY OF DEFUNCT CONGREGATION
A congregation in the Middlewest (Logansport, Indiana) has ceased to exist as a congregation. There are only one or two families left. There is, however, a cemetery which had belonged to the congregation which has room for a number of further burials. There is also a fund accumulated in the past for the care of the graves. This cemetery is the Jewish section of a larger general cemetery. The last family or families in the community can no longer maintain the cemetery. Their question is this: Shall they turn over the Jewish section to the managers or owners of the general cemetery and also give them the accumulated fund for the maintenance of the Jewish section, or shall they give the fund to a neigh-boring congregation which is willing to take upon itself the responsibility for the care of the cemetery? (Asked by Rabbi Burton Levinson, Lafayette, Indiana.)
THE PROBLEM confronting the families left in Logansport is one which has come up often in the Jewish past. How often have once fairsized congregations dwindled away and how often, more tragically, have exiled Jews had to abandon the cemetery and their home city simultaneously. This situation here does not involve tragedy, but only a decision. The decision must be based on what is the spirit of Jewish tradition in this matter.
It is a wellestablished custom by now, built into Jewish law, that a community must have a cemetery and, if possible, own it outright. The reason for the preference for outright ownership was due to the fact that, often, the lord of the manor who owned the Jewish cemetery would ask the Jews to leave and disinter their dead, or he might want to build a new road through the cemetery, etc. All these things actually occurred and Jewish communities were urged to do whatever they could to protect their dead. For example, Eliezer Spiro of Muncacz, the Hungarian authority, told a congregation that to protect their dead they should build a fence around their cemetery, and since it was a poor congregation, he told them that they might even sell a Sefer Torah in order to get money for the fence to protect their dead (see Minchat Eliezer, II,51).
So Greenwald in his standard handbook Kol Bo Al Avelut, page 164, says that it is a constant duty incumbent upon us to keep watch even over the neglected, unused cemetery. Moses Feinstein, the prime Orthodox authority in New York (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 246) answers a question from New Orleans about an old Jewish cemetery in a slum neighborhood which is almost impossible to keep clean because of the dirt thrown into it. He says that if it is impossible to protect it, then the people must take the serious responsibility of disinterring the dead. Of course this was an extreme suggestion. What is clear is that there is an ongoing Jewish responsibility to take care of an unused Jewish cemetery.
There is an objection to putting a Jewish cemetery under nonJewish authority. First one cannot be sure that they may not bury Gentiles in the Jewish section at some future time when there is no Jew there to consult. Second, if there are living somewhere relatives of the former congregation, they may want to be buried near their relatives in the old cemetery. Therefore this section must remain a Jewish cemetery for their sake.
If the neighboring Jewish congregation wishes to take responsibility for the fund and for the cemetery, this is the best solution according to Jewish tradition. The cemetery thus remains a Jewish cemetery and the Jewish families of Logansport and of Lafayette, Indiana, which is the larger neighboring town, are fulfilling their duty of protecting a Jewish cemetery.
This situation of a congregation in a nearby town taking the responsibility for a cemetery of a defunct Jewish congregation must have many precedents even here in America. As a matter of fact, our congregation, Rodef Shalom, here in Pittsburgh, takes full charge of an ancient cemetery which was organized and used even before Rodef Shalom was organized. This is a Jewish duty to take care of old cemeteries. If the few families in Logansport can no longer do so, the nearest congregation must willingly do so.