PORTLAND — A new nonprofit group has stepped forward to help preserve the legacy of the Portland-area Jewish community.
“One of the things we want to do is bring the cemeteries back into the communities,” Southern Maine Jewish Cemetery Association President Wayne Goodman said Jan. 29. “There is a lot of heritage there. There is a lot of learning to do there.”
Goodman announced on Jan. 28, at the Etz Chaim Synagogue, that the association has taken title to Mount Sinai Cemetery on Hicks Street, off Warren Avenue. The SMJCA also took ownership of the Smith Street Cemetery in South Portland, just off Preble Street. The titles were previously held by local nonprofits.
Work to maintain, preserve and restore the cemeteries will begin immediately, and Goodman said the association hopes to raise $1.2 million to fund current needs and an endowment for future operations and maintenance.
“We have a pretty good handle on what we need to fix things,” he said.
Goodman said deed to Smith Street cemetery were held by the Jewish Community Alliance, and the Mt. Sinai Cemetery Association had been owned the Portland cemetery that is approaching a century of use.
The Smith Street Cemetery in South Portland was the first Jewish cemetery in Maine, established in 1875. It has not accepted burials for about 40 years, Goodman estimated, and is little-known even in the state’s Jewish community.
“I didn’t even know there was a cemetery when I was (a JCA) board member,” Goodman said.
He estimated there may be about a dozen burials annually at Mt. Sinai, but the majority of burials are at Temple Beth El Memorial Park, off Congress Street and Johnson Road near the Portland International Jetport.
Adjacent to Mt. Sinai is Mt. Carmel Cemetery, which will not be part of SMJCA’s operations and maintenance.
Mt. Sinai and Smith Street have fallen into some disrepair, with many stones and monuments toppled. Mt. Sinai sits near the headwaters of Capisic Brook, where wet ground and frost heaves are a problem, Goodman said.
At Smith Street, the ground is mostly gravel, and Goodman said one memorial obelisk sits so precariously it is marked by yellow hazard tape.
“It is hardly a religious symbol,” he said, “but it would keep somebody from getting hurt.”
The idea for an association took root about two years ago, Goodman said. He became involved when he noted some headstones for his family members had shifted because of unstable ground.
Mt. Sinai has a caretaker, and Goodman said the tight space in the cemetery makes it difficult to use heavy equipment, so graves are dug by hand. The caretaker will also be responsible for basic maintenance at Smith Street.
The large financial burden for upkeep and repair is due in part to the lack of new burials at the cemeteries, Goodman said.
“(The cemeteries) are going to be resource spenders, not revenue generators as they were 80 or 90 years ago,” he said. ” We have to build a reserve so we can take care of them into perpetuity.”
Wayne Goodman, president of the new Southern Maine Jewish Cemetery Association, at the graves of his grandfather and great-grandparents Jan. 29 in Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Portland. “One of the things we want to do is bring the cemeteries back into the communities,” he said.
The Southern Maine Jewish Cemetery Association has taken over operation and maintenance of this cemetery on Smith Street in South Portland.