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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Two historic cemeteries merge in Montreal

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Jay Aaron

MONTREAL — Two of Montreal’s oldest Jewish cemeteries have merged into one legal entity.

Back River Memorial Gardens and Baron de Hirsch Cemetery are now Baron de Hirsch-Back River Cemeteries Inc., under a single administration.

The merger makes official a de facto relationship the two cemeteries have had for some years. Baron de Hirsch was professionally managing Back River, while two separate boards of directors and corporations were maintained.

Now there is a single board headed by president Richard Uditsky, and the cemeteries have endowments that will ensure their future care, said executive director Jay Aaron.

Both cemeteries have long histories. The earliest known burial at Back River was in 1885, and the first at the Baron de Hirsch was in 1904. Only the Jewish sections of Mount Royal Cemetery predate them.

Although Back River has been the final resting place of many of the community’s most prominent members, Back River fell into neglect over the years to the point that, by two decades ago, it was “absolutely horrible,” said Aaron.

More than 15 years ago, the boards of the two cemeteries, along with Federation CJA undertook to raise money to restore Back River, which is located at the intersection of Sauvé, Berri and Lajeunesse streets.

Some $2 million was collected from within the Jewish community, and the Quebec government put in $1 million.

The greatest part of the work – the rebuilding of almost 4,000 monuments, the installation of new drainage, the levelling of the ground and replacement of the roads, gates and utility buildings – was completed in 2005.

“Today, it is a beautiful place, a historic landmark that the community can take pride in,” Aaron said. Additional renovations are continuing to bring the entire cemetery up to par.

Being located so visibly in what is now a busy area far from the city’s Jewish population, Aaron said it’s important that Back River be kept in a way that reflects well on the community.

In 2008, Back River entered into an agreement with Baron de Hirsch to provide management.

“The goal was to eventually bring the two cemeteries together with one board,” Aaron said. “That, of course, entailed a lot of legal work, which was facilitated by Richard Uditsky, who is a lawyer.”

Back River is much smaller than Baron de Hirsch, which is on de la Savane Road.

The former has about 8,000 plots, with 2,000 still available, with about 125 burials annually. (There are more than 55,000 people buried in Baron de Hirsch’s 40-acre grounds.)

Back River’s main active affiliates are Jewish Family Services-Baron de Hirsch Institute, which owns more than half of the land, and the Shaare Zion, Shomrim Laboker and Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem congregations.

Part of the explanation for its appalling condition was that the many other organizations that once had sections in Back River disappeared or had aged memberships.

“The condition it is in today is due to the community coming together and a lot of effort by a lot of people over the years,” Aaron said.

But some names do deserve mention, he said, listing Donald Davis, Back River’s last president; Julius Erbstein, past president of Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, and the indefatigable Seymour Frank, who has been accorded the title of “founding president” of Back River.

In a letter sent earlier this month to the community, Uditsky and Frank stated: “It is our intention to look after our cemetery so that our community can continue to be proud of it as a dignified resting place for the many generations that preceded us.”

They also appealed for more funds to help defray the cost of ongoing repairs and maintenance.

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