Interest revives in Eudora’s Jewish cemetery

The B’nai Israel Cemetery in Eudora was established after the town was founded in the 1850s. After the mid-1920s, the cemetery was little used. It came back into use in 1980.

Norman Forer knew his final resting place would be a secluded cemetery southwest of Eudora where pickup trucks thunder by, kicking up dust from the gravel road that bounds the small burial ground.

Forer wanted to be buried alongside the Cohns and Urbanskys and other Jews who came to the area when Kansas was still a territory and dust from any roads was kicked up by horses.

“Being Jewish defined his life, and he wanted to be with his people,” his son, Bob Forer, recalled.

The B’nai Israel Cemetery has been important to generations of Jews like Forer, a longtime Kansas University professor who died in February.

The modest burial ground was established in the 1850s, shortly after the first Jewish settlers arrived in the area.

“Eudora was founded by two companies of settlers who came from Chicago in the 1850s when Kansas opened to settlement. … There were about 40 families in the two companies. Twenty percent were Jewish families,” said David Katzman, an American studies professor at KU.

Those settlers became the roots of the Jewish community in Lawrence today.

After being given an original plot of land for a cemetery by the budding town of Eudora, the congregation swapped it for the current site, which was closer to Lawrence where most of the families wound up moving.

Burials continued at the cemetery until the mid-1920s. After that, its use fell dormant.

By then, there had been 27 burials, including a number of early settlers. The Cohn family was one of the first. Isaac Cohn’s stone is the oldest in the cemetery. He was a year old and buried in 1859.

Along with the Cohns, the cemetery contains the remains of the Urbanskys, who not only owned a prominent dry goods store in Eudora but were also among the earliest settlers to arrive. An ancestor of Solon Summerfield, the namesake of KU’s Summerfield Hall, is also buried there. Before the name graced the campus building, the Summerfields were known for a string of six bakeries that they owned and operated in the area.

When asked about the descendants of the names on the weathered headstones, Dinah Lovitch, former head of the Cemetery Committee, responded, “They’ve all seemed to have scattered. They’ve all gone away.”

The cemetery didn’t come back into use until 1980. That was when the Jewish community in Lawrence reclaimed ownership to what was believed to be the Eudora Jewish community’s cemetery. In fact, it was theirs all along.

Before 1980, the Jewish community in Lawrence had been relatively transient, and many of the deceased were buried in Kansas City-area Jewish cemeteries such as Rose Hill Cemetery on Troost Avenue. Lovitch attributes the low number of burials between the 1920s and 1980s to a more youthful community at the time, one that has since aged.

The cemetery is meant for people who were members of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center at the time of their death. The cemetery operates under reform practices, meaning that people of other faiths who have a Jewish member in their families have also been buried there. If a Jewish person wishes to be buried there, but he or she is not a member of the Community Center at the time of death, the person’s family is required to pay $720, a sum equal to a year’s worth of dues.

The JCC has been improving the cemetery since fundraising efforts began in 2005. A small water pump has been installed at the entrance of the grounds, which not only allows for new plantings but also serves as a means for ritual hand-washing upon exiting the cemetery.

Despite its seeming inconvenience, Katzman, the KU professor, finds the remote location of the cemetery to be one of its strongest merits.

“If you lived in Kansas and wanted to be buried here, it’s the prairie that you want.”