A few years ago a few elderly Jews approached Hillel about cleaning up the Jewish graves at the cemetery. The cemetery does not have a Jewish section, but some sections have more Jewish graves than others. Neither the cemetery nor community kept lists on who was buried there. Hillel decided to take on the project and began to find the graves. Many were not marked with a Jewish star, so they did a lot based on the last name. In addition, they spoke to members of the community and asked them where their relatives were buried. The reason the graves fell into disrepair is that there are no current burials at the cemetery (because it is full) and many members of the Jewish community moved to the US or Israel. Sometimes, Hillel receives calls asking it to look after the graves of family members. Hillel students now go twice a year to clean the Jewish plots and paint the tombstones.
Our service project was to join with the students and clean the cemetery. The cemetery consisted of plots of 1 to 4 graves enclosed by small metal fences. Some you could climb over, others were higher. There were even a few decorated with a Magen David. The first one I cleaned was just one grave. It was metal with no discernible writing, but there was a Magen David on the gates. In addition to pulling weeds and gathering leaves, I cleaned up lots of bottles. Apparently as other people clean graves they throw the trash into the Jewish section. From there, I moved with three other people to clean an area with four graves. They were members of the Hesed Director’s family. He is a Kohen and can’t go to cemeteries. The graves had photos of the people who passed away and Jewish stars. You can see the photo of the one I painted. I have great photos of before and after that I will post later.
It was probably the most meaningful service project of the trip. Painting the synagogue and cleaning the playground of the Jewish kindergarten felt more public. However, this project felt more personal and privately and was the most needed. There were 16 of us working for hours and we maybe cleaned 40 graves. The work is far from glorious. My legs were eaten alive by mosquitoes as the weeds and grass are overgrown, and as we were cleaning, I must have dug into a mice colony in our section. As we were painting, mice were scurrying out of a hole and peeking back in and running away. For those of you who know how much I love rodents you can only imagine my shrieks. It is amazing that this is something the Hillel students take on. It is a great sign of a community when they take care of their own, even those that are no longer living.
From Russia with Love,