Who Owns this Jewish Cemetery?

I shared the story of what I hope to be my first of many trips to Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery here.

Way in the back of Oak Woods we saw this:

Jewish Cemetery in Oak Woods

Jewish Cemetery at the back of Oak Woods Cemetery

If you look closely, you’ll see headstones hidden among what appears to be just a vacant field in the front of the cemetery:

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Jewish Cemetery near the Confederate Mound in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago Illinois

Even the fence separating the Jewish cemetery from Oak Woods was in terrible disrepair:

Where's the rest of the fence?

What fence? Notice the headstone/tree combo?

I asked our Chicago Architecture Foundation tour guide why this section of Oak Woods wasn’t being cared for:

This isn’t part of Oak Woods. It’s a different cemetery.

She said as a courtesy, the wall surrounding Oak Woods had been extended to include the Jewish Cemetery:

See the wall separating the cemetery from the houses in the distance?

See the cement wall between the cemetery and the houses in the distance?

From other sources, I learned Oak Woods made multiple unsuccessful attempts to locate the owners of the Jewish Cemetery:

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What must the families of the deceased be feeling?

A coworker suggested looking for the synagogue to which those buried here would have belonged:

What if these were your ancestors?

What if these were your ancestors?

Any ideas about how we might find those responsible?

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6 thoughts on “Who Owns this Jewish Cemetery?

  1. I have known about the Jewish Oakwoods for sometime; however, I have never seen the overgrown state of it until yesterday. While researching for a client I passed this portion of the cemetery. I noticed the signs that said “Private Property, Not Managed by Dignity Corp”. That led me today to do a little bit of research today. I stumbled across your post while doing so. Also, while doing so I found an entry in a book digitized on google. It is titled “The American Jewish Yearbook 5680”. It is volume 21 and covers the years 1919-1920. On page 367 I found the following entry: Oakwood Cemetery, South Chicago. Owned by Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol U’B’nei Jacob. This lead me to a now defunct temple on the south side. The congregation is now merged with several others, and is now located in Skokie. Here is a link to the current website that mentions Oakwoods Cemetery: http://www.kessermaariv.org/about.html

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    • Steven,

      I’m glad you had the opportunity to see Jewish Oakwoods in person. It troubles me that any cemetery is allowed to fall into such a state. What I found most disconcerting during my visit were the stones on the graves; signs that family or friends had recently visited. Imagine their horror at seeing a loved one’s final resting place in such a state!

      Thank you for sharing the interesting book and web site – I enjoyed exploring both. Helps to understand the story behind the cemetery, but still troubling.

      Did you find what you were looking for at Oakwoods?

      Laura

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      • Laura,

        It troubled me that the congregation that established it does not care for it. Especially since most of the burials are older, and I am sure the people who visit are elderly themselves. I understand that they are no longer nearby, but they are not defunct either. I also find it bothersome that Oakwoods does not step up either. They pride themselves on being both a historic and beautiful cemetery. I realize it is not their responsibility to take one. However, they do not have to keep it up regularly; however, they could mow the grass several times a year.

        I am glad you enjoyed the information I found today. I am still in a bit of shock that congregation that chartered it is not taking care of it.

        I found both individuals I was looking for. Well, at least the area they were buried in. Both are in opposite corners of the cemetery in a Potter’s Field.

        Best regards,
        Steven

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      • It’s a frustrating situation all around. I understand Oakwoods’ reluctance to take on the liability issues of caring for this section of the cemetery – an area they don’t own. However, it’s hard to see how neglected the area is and not think as you do, just cut the grass once in awhile. My understanding is that when Oakwoods had the wall constructed around the cemetery, they included the Jewish cemetery as a courtesy. I’m sure the families appreciated the gesture; it would be nice if the congregation would repay the act by contributing to the care of the area.

        In my humble opinion, the congregation is ultimately responsible. They should be ashamed of the deplorable condition of their members’ final resting place.

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  2. It’s so sad that the Jewish cemetery is in such bad shape. Some of the stones don’t look real old–and it seems like the children of some of the people buried there might still be living.

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