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Baumel Joseph: Preserving a lost grave through social media

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Sadr City Jewish Cemetery (Sass Peress photo)

In this era of instant global communication, some people are justifiably worried about social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, with their power to invade and violate our privacy.

Yet, as we all know, this global vehicle of instant contact can illuminate, educate and support all sorts of endeavours.

Recently, Sass Peress experienced a “miracle.” He wanted to locate and preserve his paternal grandfather’s grave in Iraq. But, how could he? There was no way he or any member of his family could go back there. That world of their existence was closed, trampled upon and inaccessible. Or so he thought.

Then, from a chance Facebook encounter, his efforts moved a vast anonymous community of Jews and Iraqi Muslims to preserve 4,000 Jewish graves. And the project is growing.

This is a 21st century miracle.

In November 2017, an Iraqi-born Muslim British friend posted the picture of Miss Israel and Miss Iraq online. Peress, being the friendly communicator that he is, wrote “salam aleikum.” Within minutes he was contacted by the manager of the Miss Iraq pageant who asked for a favour locating someone. Peress agreed and then asked for one in return. This led to the relocated Jewish cemetery.

To find and clean up the specific tombstone would require many different individuals. And some money. Trust was built and many exchanges took place leading to the location of Peress’ paternal grandfather’s tombstone in the transferred Baghdad cemetery.

The original cemetery which was established in 1642, was bulldozed by orders from Gen. Abd Al-Karim Qassam following the 14th July Revolution of 1958, and the graves were irreverently moved to Sadr City, a suburb just outside of Baghdad.

Delicate negotiations were required to clean up the one grave and restore the tombstone. Time, patience and a little money eased the path. Pictures crossed the Internet. Many pictures. Now Peress, his father and family could rest assured that their grandfather’s grave is clean and preserved. Even protected. But what about the other graves?

There is a commission to protect and preserve the Jewish cemeteries and mass graves of Europe. It is active and seeks legal recourse, especially for those affected by the Holocaust.

READ: NEED TO FIND A LOVED ONE’S GRAVE? THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

Shouldn’t we extend this scrutiny to all our dead and buried? With guidance from elders such as Sami Sourani, Peress understood this and undertook the preservation of the graves of his community of Babylonian Jews. This community had been in the land for over 2,500 years. They had flourished and lived rich cultured lives. Their troubles began in the 20th century peaking in a farhud (pogrom) in 1941 and culminating with an increasing list of restrictive laws and regulations.

In 1950 the majority of the community was briefly allowed to leave for Israel. Later others escaped over the mountains with Kurdish help. Eventually, excluded and ejected, only 10 were left. But their dead remained.

Now with the facility of global communication, and some good people on both sides of the ocean, the relocated cemetery could be protected. The dead could lie in peace.

More could be done. With the help of colleagues in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal and the Community of Babylonian Iraqi Jews, the list of participating synagogues and even churches eventually grew from 18 in 2018 to 47 in 2019. The goal now is 300. From London, New York, Los Angeles and even Mexico, people and communities helped with money and events, dedicating worship days (a Shabbat at the end of November) to commemorate, preserve and honour.

Peress has not stopped. He decided to continue after the 4,000 graves at Sadr City were preserved and Shabbatot were set aside for memorials. The quest is now to preserve the cemeteries of other minorities in the Middle East. All those that have been desecrated and demeaned.

This is hesed shel emet, the truest type of loving kindness our tradition knows. That which we do for the dead, for those who can never repay us, that is most sincere form of righteousness, of virtue.

 

To participate, contact Sass Peress at [email protected]

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