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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Vancouver’s first Jewish cemetery gets facelift

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The rededication of the Mountain View Jewish cemetery last month drew a crowd of 150 to the site on Fraser and 37th streets.

VANCOUVER — A crowd of 150 gathered at Vancouver’s first Jewish cemetery, Mountain View, last month to witness the rededication of 147 previously unmarked graves, each of which was given a marker to indicate who is buried beneath them.

This forgotten Jewish cemetery forms part of a larger, 106-acre cemetery operated by the City of Vancouver and contains 450 Jewish graves dating back to 1892.

Some of them belong to notable pioneers in the community, such as Zebulon Franks, who arrived in Vancouver from Russia in 1887 and is regarded as the first leader of the Orthodox Jewish community. The family of Simon Petersky, president of Vancouver’s Reform congregation, Temple Emanu-El, is interred at Mountain View, as is Abraham Nemetz, whose grandson Nathan Nemetz became the chief justice of British Columbia’s court of appeal and a chancellor at the University of British Columbia.

Shirley Barnett, another one of Abraham’s grandchildren, was the driving force behind this restoration project. A year ago, she approached the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery board, assembled a project team and started garnering support for the clean-up.

“I liked the setting. I have done a lot of projects in the Jewish community, and I thought I would like to do this,” she said.

Among her team members is Vancouverite Norman Franks, who has four family members interred at Mountain View.

“The cemetery is a diamond in the rough,” he said. “With the proper landscaping, hedging, paths throughout and headstones cleaned, it’s going to be a jewel in our community.”

When it’s completed, the restoration project will include rejuvenating the hedge that separates the Jewish cemetery from the rest of the graves, cleaning the headstones, adding a washing station for ritual hand-washing, adding benches, redoing the pathways and restoring the gates to their original artistic and historical significance.

The work comes with a $500,000 price tag and will likely take between two to three years, said project administrator Myra Adirim.

The professionals involved include renowned landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, JB Newall Memorials and Bill Pechet Design Studio.

The Oct. 20 rededication ceremony, conducted by Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, was an important moment, Adirim said.

“This cemetery holds the key to a lot of the Jewish history that began in Vancouver,” she explained.

“A lot of notable people are buried there and they’re the ones responsible for our Jewish life now, today.”

Between the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery board and Mountain View Cemetery, the records of all the people buried at the cemetery remain intact, including that of Otto E. Bond, the first Jew to be interred there on Dec. 19, 1892. Until last month, his grave was unmarked.

“The people buried there are basically the pioneers in our Jewish community,” Franks said.

“It’s important to pay respect to them. And we were so impressed by the numbers that turned out to mark the rededication.”

In 1891, Mayor David Oppenheimer granted a reserved section of land at Mountain View cemetery to the Jewish community. It was consecrated in 1892, but after a new Jewish cemetery opened in New Westminster in 1926, the Jewish section of Mountain View went into decline. Today, a few remaining vacant plots at Mountain View Jewish Cemetery are reserved for future interment.

The cemetery constitutes part of the Jewish Historical Society’s walking tour.

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