Archive for Saturday, May 28, 2005

Preserving the past

Campaign raises funds to improve Jewish burial ground

May 28, 2005

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At the quiet intersection of two gravel roads in rural Douglas County stands a little piece of Jewish history.

Occupying one quarter of a bucolic, two-acre parcel of land just southwest of Eudora is B'nai Israel Cemetery. It contains the graves of about 40 Jewish men, women and children stretching from the middle of the 19th century to the dawn of the 21st.

The oldest tombstone marks the burial site of a child, Isaac Cohn, who died in 1858. The most recent burial, for a Lawrence woman named Una Hehir Forer, took place earlier this year.

Now, the cemetery has a lonesome air, amid the surrounding farmland and pasture, forlorn and perhaps forgotten by all but a few.

But that's about to change.

In February, the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive - the legal owner of the land - launched a capital campaign to raise $40,000 to upgrade the cemetery's appearance.

Since March, 49 people have pledged $35,000 to the campaign, and another 15 have indicated they will donate to the fund.

Plans call for the cemetery to be filled out with new landscaping and native plantings, a water meter to nourish the greenery and a circular road for improved access.

Caretaker Neil Shanberg is among those who wish to improve the present state of the Jewish cemetery near Eudora. Shanberg is former president of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center.

Caretaker Neil Shanberg is among those who wish to improve the present state of the Jewish cemetery near Eudora. Shanberg is former president of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center.

No longer will it seem so bleak.

"I think it's great. You'll be able to drive down the road (North 1300) and, instead of just seeing a few tombstones off in a corner, you're going to see an oasis of trees and plantings in what used to be a Kansas farm field," says Neil Shanberg, the cemetery's sexton, or caretaker.

"It's going to make a good impression, and you're going to say, 'Isn't that beautiful?'"

Which is just fine with Shanberg.

Some day, he and his wife, Liz Kundin, will be buried here.

Personal and historical value

Many of those who are buried in B'nai Israel Cemetery no longer have living relatives, or at least relatives in the Lawrence area.

But raising tens of thousands of dollars needed for the improvement effort has come easily, according to Kundin, chair of the capital campaign.


"It's something that is very important, and to make this happen requires money. The fund-raising effort certainly hasn't been difficult. People understand why we're raising money, and they're helping to the extent they are able," Kundin says.

Shanberg and Kundin belong to the Lawrence Jewish Community Center. Shanberg is a former president of the congregation.

Three stones, representing visits to a grave, rest atop a tombstone.

Three stones, representing visits to a grave, rest atop a tombstone.

Four members have donated $1,800 or more. Ten members have contributed $900 or more. And one couple who belongs to the center donated their car, which was then sold for $5,000.

"They gave that specifically as our (capital campaign) kickoff gift," Kundin says.

Donations to the campaign have been made by current and former center members and their relatives, as well as the relatives of some of those who have been buried in the cemetery in recent decades.

Thirteen burials have taken place there since 1980.

Every center member has a right to be buried in the cemetery, and because there are many interfaith marriages among the congregation, non-Jewish family members may be buried there, too.

But B'nai Israel Cemetery - the Jewish cemetery nearest to Lawrence - is intended to serve the needs of all Jews who live in this area, including those from nearby communities such as Topeka.

Jack Wisman, co-owner of Einstein's Outdoor Outfitters, a Topeka business, has an aunt buried at B'nai Israel Cemetery. Wisman's aunt, Melda Einstein died March 17, 2002, at the age of 86. The Einstein family, to which Wisman belongs, donated money to the capital campaign.

This tombstone from the early 1900s is among about 40 markers at the Jewish cemetery near Eudora.

This tombstone from the early 1900s is among about 40 markers at the Jewish cemetery near Eudora.

"For personal reasons, for family reasons and for supporting the Jewish community in Lawrence, we wanted to do it," Wisman says.

"The cemetery also has a lot of historical value. There aren't many places like that in the Midwest. It shows that there have been Jews in this country for a long, long time."

Important to Jewish practice

Though the presence of the Jewish cemetery might not be widely known to Lawrence residents, it has been serving the needs of area Jews for almost 150 years.

The cemetery's history is detailed in "Gone But Not Forgotten," a 2001 book by Anita Loeb published by the Jewish Federation of Kansas City.

A group of pioneer Jews settled in Eudora in the 1850s. Isadore Bernstein purchased 2 acres of land, which was then deeded to Charles Levy, David Urbansky and Samuel Frischman as trustees for the B'nai Israel Cemetery.

Caretaker Neil Shanberg walks among the graves of the B'nai Israel Cemetery southwest of Eudora. The Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, is raising $40,000 to improve the old cemetery.

Caretaker Neil Shanberg walks among the graves of the B'nai Israel Cemetery southwest of Eudora. The Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, is raising $40,000 to improve the old cemetery.

The first burial was of Isaac Cohn, son of Asher and Sarah Cohn, who died in 1858. By 1928, there had been 24 burials in the cemetery. The Jewish settlement in this area declined, and the cemetery was not used for a number of years.

It was restored by Beth Horon Lodge of the B'nai B'rith - a Jewish fraternal organization - in 1952. The Lawrence Jewish Community Center has been the legal owner for the past 25 years.

David Katzman, a professor of American studies at Kansas University, was the Jewish center's president when the cemetery was acquired and is among those who have donated to the capital campaign to improve the cemetery.

"I'm going to be buried there," he says. "But I think it's more than just personal (that he gave money). We need to provide burial grounds for the community. After all, visiting the sick and the dead are important parts of Jewish practice."

B'nai Israel Cemetery

B'nai Israel Cemetery is at the intersection of Douglas County roads North 1300 and East 2100, southwest of Eudora. The cemetery - its name means "children of Israel" in Hebrew - was established in 1858 by pioneer Jews who settled in Eudora. A bronze plaque at the gate to the property reads "Cemetery Beni Israel," but it is now referred to as B'nai Israel Cemetery. "B'nai" is the generally accepted, modern transliteration to English of that Hebrew word. For more information about the historic cemetery, contact the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, at 841-7636.

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