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Neglected Toronto cemetery gets some much-needed TLC

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Workers repair a tombstone in Section 9 of Roselawn Cemetery in Toronto. (Ron Csillag/The CJN)

A Jewish cemetery in Toronto that had been neglected for quite some time has received a much-needed makeover.

Section 9 of Roselawn Cemetery, which is owned and administered by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, is getting a long-awaited facelift.

The section had been in disrepair for years. Crooked and toppled tombstones, some smashed by their falls, names on markers faded into obscurity, graves hidden in a thicket of bushes and branches, piles of rubble and heaving ground all spoke to neglect.

READ: BRINGING NEW LIFE TO A TORONTO CEMETERY LEFT TO ROT

Although the grass had been mowed, indicating some level of care, the small section on the north side of Roselawn Avenue was a startling state of affairs given that UJA in Toronto raises millions of dollars a year.

Among Toronto’s Jewish cemeteries, this section was the most damaged. Officials conceded that it had simply fallen between the cracks.

The CJN first reported on the situation a year ago.

These pillow markers will denote the graves of the unnamed in the section. (Ron Csillag/The CJN)

That’s all changing and the cemetery is now a hub of activity. Tombstones are being restored to their proper places and straightened if they can withstand movement. New concrete foundations are being poured for markers. Officials say each damaged grave represents a custom repair job.

On the day The CJN visited, a crew of five brawny men were mixing cement, digging hard earth and lifting heavy tombstones, sometimes by hand and sometimes with a chain winch stabilized by three poles arranged in the shape of a teepee.

It’s slow, painstaking, difficult work.

We’re doing everything possible to restore what can be restored and to give proper respect and dignity to everybody.
– Steven Shulman

Restoration began after the last winter storm in April, and the goal is to finish by the end of the summer. Plans include a new fence and footpath. Total costs are estimated at $250,000, with all the money coming from UJA donors.

A few tombstones date to the early 20th century and officials believe that some remains are of those who died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which claimed 1,750 lives in Toronto.

Small headstones denote the graves of children.

Neglect at Toronto’s Roselawn Cemetery. RON CSILLAG PHOTO

In its day, it was most likely the community cemetery for people who weren’t members of a synagogue or fraternal group.

While there are blank spaces in the cemetery, Federation officials say it’s almost full. A ground-penetrating radar study some years ago showed that there could be as many as 500 bodies buried in Section 9, with many in unmarked graves.

The estimated 100 to 150 unnamed dead will be memorialized with a small marker engraved with the Hebrew words, “Kever Yisra’el” (roughly, “Jewish grave”).

Overgrown greenery overtakes a grave at Roselawn Cemetery in 2017. RON CSILLAG PHOTO

A big task ahead, said Steven Shulman of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, is to locate loved ones of the dead, to ask for help keeping up the graves.

Those behind the restoration say they’re doing their best to read the names on the faded headstones and markers. They’re working from a list of 227 names in the section that was compiled by the Ontario Jewish Archives.

A central monument in the cemetery will pay tribute to those whose markers are illegible or nonexistent.

Roselawn Cemetery in 2017. RON CSILLAG PHOTO

“We’re doing everything possible to restore what can be restored and to give proper respect and dignity to everybody (in the cemetery), particularly to those we can’t name,” said Shulman, who’s overseeing the improvements.

Two local rabbis, Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation and Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedec Congregation, are being consulted on religious aspects of the restoration, as is a cemetery expert in New York.

Shulman said the Federation will ensure that there are funds to maintain the cemetery “in the most respectful manner.”

A rededication ceremony is scheduled for the fall.