In 1847, six German-American Jewish men gathered in a small store in Paterson to establish the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the first organized synagogue in New Jersey.
“The very first thing they did was buy a parcel of land in what was then called Centerville and is now Clifton to use as a cemetery before they figured out the rest — which I believe was not uncommon given the traditional Jewish reverence for those who came before,” Pam Himeles of North Haledon said.
By the 1880s, the congregation, known as Barnert Temple, had transitioned to Reform Judaism. It moved to Franklin Lakes in 1987. Ms. Himeles, a past president of Barnert Temple, and her husband, Jeff, co-chair its cemetery committee. As part of events commemorating Barnert Temple’s 175th anniversary year, the Himeles arranged a rededication of the Centerville Cemetery on April 16.
The last burial that took place in Centerville was in the late 1800s. It’s a small plot of land, measuring just 50 by 110 feet. “We believe there are four to five dozen people buried there,” Ms. Himeles said.
“There are no reliable records anymore, partly because there was a big fire in the storehouse where the records were kept,” Mr. Himeles added.
They did find a ledger from the 1800s that recorded expenditures. There are line items listing gravedigging costs of $1 or 50 cents. Presumably the lower price was for digging a child’s grave, which unfortunately was not an uncommon occurrence at that time.
The committee also discovered a death certificate for someone buried in the Centerville Cemetery, on which the cause of death was noted as “exhaustion.”
“When the cemetery was filled, the congregation bought a larger piece of land in Totowa,” Ms. Himeles said. This became the Mount Nebo Cemetery, which Barnert Temple still uses.
“In the Centerville Cemetery, we’ve done a lot of landscaping and cleanups and we have restored some headstones because many have fallen and broken,” Mr. Himeles said. “Probably many others are under the ground at this point.”
In preparation for the rededication, a team of volunteers from the synagogue built gravel-filled wooden frames to safeguard the broken headstones. “Instead of just lying on the ground prone to damage, the stones that remain, or fragments of them, have now been placed in the frames to protect them,” Ms. Himeles said.
Mr. Himeles noted that only two major headstones still stand upright. Each has an inscription in Hebrew or Yiddish on one side, and English on the other. “One stone has a water pitcher carved into it, meaning a Levite was buried in that grave,” he said.
In 1911, the cemetery was surrounded by a stone wall, and over time houses were built all around it. Today, Centerville Cemetery is not visible from the street and can be accessed only through an easement at the side of a private home.
A Clifton council member who attended the rededication had not even known that the cemetery existed, Barnert Temple’s rabbi, Rachel Steiner, said.
“Our volunteers have taken ownership of caring for the grounds in such a beautiful way,” Rabbi Steiner said. “We were able to lay some of the older stones back in place with care and love.”
The ceremony, attended by about 40 members of Barnert Temple, concluded with the recitation of the memorial prayer and mourner’s kaddish.
“It was our way to mark all of the work that was done and our recommitment to caring for the people who really planted the foundation of what would become Barnert Temple,” Rabbi Steiner said.
Going forward, the cemetery committee members are determined to maintain the grounds to the best of their ability.
“The purpose of the rededication ceremony was to share our history with our members and explain a bit about our roots,” Ms. Himeles said. “Now that people in our temple have been reawakened to the cemetery’s existence, maybe we will hold commemorative events there.
“If we had funding, there is much more we could do, such as perhaps find some of the buried stones.”
Rabbi Steiner said she felt the most important part of the event “was learning about the history of the cemetery, which is so intertwined with the history of our congregation.”