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Old Jewish Cemetery restored in Pa.

October 29, 2000

Old Jewish Cemetery restored in Pa.



By STACEY DANZUSO / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Old Jewish CemeteryCHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Restorations to a Jewish cemetery that predates the Civil War are complete, and the project coordinator hopes to secure a state historical marker for the site in the coming months.

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James Wolfson said his interest in the Old Jewish Cemetery, 361 E. Washington St., began four years ago when he moved to Chambersburg and joined the Congregation of Sons of Israel.

"I heard there actually was a Jewish cemetery in complete disrepair, but no one knew much about it," he said.

Since then, Wolfson has researched the site through old newspapers and local records. He said he learned the most from a diary written by a member of the burial society that established the cemetery in 1844.

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A member of the congregation, which has had the diary for years, translated it from its original German dialect.

The cemetery was consecrated in 1844 by a Jewish Chevrah Kaddishah, a holy burial society, which formed Sept. 27, 1840.

The group of early Franklin County settlers included Orthodox Jews, whose sole purpose was to allow its members a proper burial under Jewish law. Originally named Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery, it was the first Jewish cemetery west of Philadelphia to be consecrated, according to Wolfson.

After reading the diary, which covered the cemetery's consecration to the latter part of the 19th century, Wolfson said he decided to organize a restoration project.

Wolfson found the cemetery's original 1844 deed in the county courthouse. Borough officials allowed him to proceed with the renovations in September, he said.

"All of the stones were knocked flat on their faces. There was a major desecration in 1988, and some since then," he said.

Time and erosion also ran their course, and in some spots the bases of the stones were not visible, Wolfson said. Others were broken and leaning against a fence.

After a national search of restoration experts, Wolfson hired Bob and Kathy Terry of Liscomb, Iowa, to complete the project.

Last week, the husband and wife team that constitute Terry's Cemetery Restoration, spent four days arranging the headstones in their original fashion and located the foundation of what was once a funeral home, Wolfson said.

The Terrys also found what they believe to be the key to the building's door about one foot below the surface of the ground during their work.

There are about 75 people buried in the small 42-by-264-foot cemetery, Wolfson said.

Many others have pitched into Wolfson's effort and donated about $10,000 to pay for the repairs.

The Rev. William Harter, a minister at Falling Springs Presbyterian Church, also got other local churches involved, he said.

"This is not just a Jewish effort. This belongs to Chambersburg and the neighborhood," Wolfson said.

He said he would like to see the Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones translated and the cemetery landscaped.

He also hopes to have the cemetery added to Chambersburg's historical tours.

At least one Confederate soldier, Isaac Burgauer of Arkansas, is buried in the cemetery. He was transported there by horse and carriage and buried after his death July 19, 1863, according to Wolfson.

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