21 July 2009

Indiana: 5,600 Jewish graves databased

A three-year project in Indianapolis has documented 5,600 graves in the city's 11 old Jewish cemeteries on Kelly Street. The database is now online in JewishGen's Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Register (JOWBR).

Gloria Green recently completed effort has been hailed by genealogists and historians in the preservation of the city's Jewish past and was covered in this IndyStar.com story.

Green and volunteers sifted through handwritten congregational and mortuary records dating to 1935. And they went headstone to headstone through the crowded rows of graves. In some cases, Green dived into thickets searching for headstones lost to time and overgrowth.

The richest trove of new information may be the record of the dead buried by poorer ethnic immigrant groups whose recordkeeping was the spottiest -- those of Russian, Polish and Hungarian Jewish descent and one cemetery owned by a synagogue known simply as "the peddlers congregation."

The wave of Jewish immigration to Indianapolis began with a trickle of German Jews who arrived in the decade before the Civil War. Other groups followed. But at its peak in the 1920s, the area bounded by Bluff Road and South Meridian, McCarty and Raymond streets was a thriving Jewish enclave of merchants and tailors, butchers and scrap dealers -- roughly 6,000 in all.
In 1856, the city's first congregation -The Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) - was established and recognized the need for a cemetery. The synagogue purchased land on Kelly Street alongside the Catholic and Lutheran cemeteries. In turn, it sold pieces of the cemetery to new congregations as they formed.

Older graves in the section that belongs to IHC's mostly German immigrants are spaced wide apart and sometimes feature towering monuments. But graves in the sections of poorer Poles, Russians and Hungarians -- cemeteries set aside for defunct congregations such as Shara Tefilo, Knesses Israel and Ohev Zedeck -- are wedged so close together there's barely room for a blade of grass.

"Poorer people have less space in this world and the next," said Rabbi Arnold Bienstock, whose Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel is the spiritual escendant of Shara Tefilo, Knesses Israel and the "peddler's congregation," Esras Achem.

Until Green's effort to document the burial sites, Bienstock's congregation had no records of its ancestors in the Kelly Street cemeteries.
Jewish burials are still conducted in the old Kelly Street cemeteries, but most burials today are in the newer cemeteries near today's center of Jewish life on the Northside and in Hamilton County; there are some 10,000 Jews in the Indianapolis area.

For Green, an office manager in a commercial real estate business, this journey into the past began during a meeting of her genealogy club at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck. A representative of a Jewish genealogy Web site said people from around the world would call for information about relatives buried in Indianapolis' Kelly Street cemeteries, but there was none to give. Green took up the cause.

The fruit of her labors -- and those of her volunteers -- is evident now that information is available on the Web site. As to why she took on the task, Green points to the song from "Fiddler on the Roof." It is all about "tradition," in this case, of honoring the dead.

Birth and death dates are recorded by the Hebrew calendar; some stones have only Hebrew, some have English on the back and there are Jewish symbols (Star of David and the menorah). Some stones bear black and white photos of the deceased.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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