B’nai David Cemetery … And You

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David Goldman is a mentsh. And I should know — I get confused for one all the time. And, like a mentsh, he would be quick to tell you that his efforts have nothing to do with him and everything to do with the women in his life: his daughter Eva, a soon-to-be bat mitzvah with a continuing commitment to service; his wife Amy, the Metro Detroit native who lured him to Michigan from Chicago in 1998; and Esther Malka Shibovich, Amy’s great- (Eva’s great-great) grandmother.

Esther succumbed to the flu in 1918, one of tens of millions of people who died in the pandemic. And probably the only one who mattered to her son Benny, who, orphaned at age 6, never stopped visiting his mother at the Jewish cemetery on Van Dyke between Harper and McNichols.

I never knew there was a Jewish cemetery on Van Dyke between Harper and McNichols. But I should have known something holy was afoot when I stepped out of the monthly Project Healthy Community food pantry at the Northwest Activities Center (aka the Meyers-Curtis JCC) to field a phone call from David (Goldman) by way of David (Lerner) about (B’nai) David Cemetery.

I don’t spend much time in cemeteries. This is generally a good thing. But as someone who is a (B+/A-) student of history — and believes that history is best told, not in years or decades, but in generations — I have been captivated by my recent time at B’nai David Cemetery.

The emigration and American experience of Bessie Solovich, born 1831? The unrealized adulthood of Hyman Kaplan whose life, at 21, was “unlighted by Lake St. Claire?” The life Laura DeRoven led for 45 more years before returning to lie beside her husband in 1975?

To say nothing of the stories of the cemeteries themselves. There are four Jewish cemeteries in Detroit. In the Jewish section of Elmwood Cemetery, Temple Beth El forefathers are interred among the soft hills and a stream courtesy of Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed the grounds for people to picnic there.

Woodmere, too, has a Jewish section and many famous tenants nearby, including the founders of Buick, Cadillac, Carhartt, the Detroit News and Vernors.

Beth Olem Cemetery, now contained completely within GM’s Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly Plant, is open to the public twice a year.

As for B’nai David, there can’t be more than two degrees of separation from the 1,200 people buried there and the (living) members of our community. Which is to say, if you don’t know someone there, you know someone who does.

So feel at least a tinge of Jewish guilt that B’nai David is in bad shape. Weeds grow like weeds. Animals dig around grave sites. Headstones topple from the shifting earth.

The first B’nai David burial was in 1898, the most recent in 2009. And one current member of our community intends on joining her husband there when the time comes.

I hope you will join us between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27, (coincidentally, the same day Beth Olem is open) to perform the mitzvah of k’vod ha-meit, honoring the dead.

We have good work for you and all the people you recruit, both on the cemetery grounds and tackling the illegal dumping nearby, thanks to support from the Jewish Fund and a dumpster from Mitch (also a mentsh) at Cohen Scrap Metal.

I have a morbid (mortal?) curiosity as to when the population of Jews living in Detroit fell below the number buried there. I think that majority will flip in the years ahead — to say nothing of those of us “Detroiters in exile” — but, in the meantime, let’s live to serve our forbears and their neighbors. RT

Want to volunteer or visit? Email Ben or call (313) 3388-BEN.
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