09 June 2008

Washington DC: Jewish burials, Arlington National Cemetery

A unique gift of Jewish history was presented to the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington (JGSGW) at the group's recent member appreciation luncheon.

Outgoing president Marlene Bishow announced that the family of the late Kenneth Poch has given to the JGSGW his extensive research on Jewish soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Poch had spent more than 10 years on site at the cemetery, eventually identifying more than 2,200 Jewish soldiers.

Inspired by "Where They Lie: Someone Should Say Kaddish" (1992) by Mel Young, he decided to visit the graves, say Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) and place a small smooth stone on the headstones - a Jewish custom indicating that someone had visited the grave.

These visits encouraged him to inquire how many Jewish soldiers were actually buried at the famous national cemetery, which has more than 330,000 graves (as of January 2008). Not until after World War I were religious symbols permitted on the gravestones, so not all Jewish soldiers' graves bear a Star of David.

Although his life was brought to an early end by Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), Poch spent his last decade as the self-appointed historian of Arlington's Jewish soldiers.

Research donated to JGSGW includes Poch's meticulously organized photos, letters, surveys and other items. After his death in December 2003, his family hastily gathered together his personal belongings, including his research binders and boxes, and stored them in his sister's Gaithersburg home.

JGSGW member Ernie Fine knew Poch and had discussed the Arlington project with him; he arranged for the transfer of the materials.

The society's first Cemetery Project (1988-1992) indexed and researched two of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the nation’s capital: Macpelah, the old cemetery of Washington Hebrew Congregation's old cemetery and the old cemetery of Adas Israel Congregation on Alabama Avenue in the southeast part of the city. This research was submitted to the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR).

In December 2007, JGSGW launched their second Cemetery Research Project, with the goal of indexing all Jewish grave sites in the greater Washington DC area.

As part of the new project, JGSGW volunteers will visit the cemeteries and photograph the tombstones, gleaning from them and other sources, the information in the inscription, including the deceased's Hebrew name and his or her father’s name, if included.

Plans are being formalized as to how the ANC research materials will be presented, but the target date for the project completion is July 2011, when the JGSGW will host the 31st IAJGS International Conference of Jewish Genealogy.

According to the Arlington National Cemetery website:

In Section 13 there are five Jewish soldiers who fought and died during the Civil War serving in the Union Army.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 -- which saw brother against brother as well as Jew against Jew -- there were 150,000 Jews in the United States. Three thousand fought on the side of the Confederacy and 6,700 for the Union.

For more information (although numbers appear to need updating) on the history of Jews buried at Arlington, click here.

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