Cleveland Plain Dealer Fir Avenue Cemetery
The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently?featured efforts by a local community and its partners in the renovation of a dilapidated cemetery on Cleveland’s near west side.
Fir Street Cemetery on West Side of Cleveland renovated; open house is Saturday
CLEVELAND – Simon Zarumbowitz’s tombstone had been sitting cockeyed for God knows how long.
But on Wednesday, workers muscled old Simon’s marker plumb again, giving it the stately posture it had when gravediggers set it on his fresh grave 108 years ago.
The work is part of a two-year project by a neighborhood block club to fix up the Fir Street Cemetery, one of Cleveland’s oldest Jewish cemeteries — circa 1830s — on the city’s near West Side.
Through foundation grants and donations, the club raised $10,000 to remove old trees, repair broken tombstones and replace a battered fence gate.
Neighborhood volunteers, toiling among the hulking, Hebrew-lettered grave markers, planted trees, tulips and daffodils and removed trash and graffiti.
The Rev. Dean Van Farowe of Calvary Reformed Church on West 65th Street rolled up his sleeves. So did Yasir Hamdallah, a Muslim who lives on West 59th Street.
And now neighbors are inviting the public to an open house Saturday to display their handiwork and to celebrate the preservation of a piece of history tucked away on a side street.
“When we planted the bulbs, the whole neighborhood came out,” said block club member Jonathan Holody, a Methodist. “This project has been something positive and we’re all working on it.”
Neighbors planted 14 trees and 1,000 perennial bulbs. Holody ran five water hoses from his house across the street to the cemetery. Juanita Ortiz of West 61st Street served coffee.
“It got people involved and it shows that we care about this place,” said Holody. “It’s neat to think that some of Cleveland’s most prominent early settlers are buried here.”
The cemetery is on Fir Avenue, originally called Fir Street. Holody and retired autoworker Fred Valentine put up a post for a new sign “Fir Street Cemetery.”
“There’s a lot of history right in there,” said Valentine, 74, sitting on his front porch, pointing to the tombstones.
The neighborhood off West 65th Street, between Lorain and Bridge avenues, has never been Jewish. Cleveland’s early Jews settled on the city’s near East Side, but some crossed the Cuyahoga River to bury their dead.
Some of the earliest graves in the one-acre cemetery are Hungarian Orthodox Jews, according to Cleveland Municipal Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there.
“We’re learning about each family,” said Pianka, who remembers walking by the graveyard as a little kid, wondering what the strange inscriptions in Hebrew and Yiddish meant. “Each of the 850 people buried here had contributed to our community.”
The deceased include Polish immigrant Harry “Czar” Bernstein (1856-1920), an East Side political boss who owned saloons and theaters; Russian immigrant Rabbi Gershon Ravinson (1848-1907) of East 40th Street who was of the 10th generation of rabbis in his family; and Hungarian immigrant Fannie Lichtig (1817-1899) of St. Clair Avenue, described in her obituary as a “pious Jewish woman.”
Biographies of about a dozen of the deceased will be placed on their tombstones for Saturday’s open house. Organizers will distribute rice paper and wax crayons to make rubbings of names and epitaphs. And a violinist will play traditional Jewish music.
Organizers have tracked down and invited some relatives of the deceased. And Ken Anthony, executive director of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, which owns the cemetery and cuts the grass, will be there.
“This was a neighborhood thing,” said Anthony. “The people who live there said, ‘What can I do?’ And they’ve made it a very successful project.”
Donors for the project included the Cleveland Foundation and Beachwood resident Robert Klein, owner of Safeguard Properties, a nationwide company that maintains foreclosed properties for banks.
“This project honored the memories of the people buried in the cemetery,” said Klein, an Orthodox Jew. “So many people of different faiths and nationalities came together to make something very special happen.”
Earlier this week, sculptor Ted Stroie, who usually works on Christian art, fixed and straightened broken tombstones.
Stroie, a Romanian immigrant, is an Orthodox Christian. “And here I am,” he laughed, “working for the Orthodox Jews.”
“It’s one God for everybody,” he added. “Like the sun. We’re all under one sun. We all breathe the same air.”
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