Crawford County, Pennsylvania

Meadville Jewish Cemetery


Pamela Batzel, “Jewish cemetery tells immigration story,” Meadville Tribune, 28 December 1998, page 1:
    Testimony to the waves of Jewish emigration, from Europe to Meadville, exists in a small local cemetery.
    Like all Jewish cemeteries, it’s a veritable history book for Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Temple Beth Israel in Sharon.
    A study of Jewish history, it’s a place to analyze birth and death dates and last names to determine origins.
    “When I went to see the cemetery I just observed the cemetery and drew some conclusions,” said Cukierkorn.
    Two waves of Jewish immigrants settled down in the Meadville area, he said.
    While the area’s historical population is small, Cukierkorn said it impressed him nonetheless.
    Generally, Jews were drawn to large urban centers, but some dispersed to smaller places short on merchants.
    “They were really looking for trading possibilities,” he said.
    In the mid 1950s [sic; 1850s], some 60 years after Meadville’s founding, Jewish people moved into the area from France, Germany.
    “You can see by the names that they were German Jews,” said Cukierkorn, who will teach a Jewish civilization class at Allegheny College this spring.
    The second wave of Jews also had German names, he said.
    About 17 families came during the 20th century war years and founded the Jewish Community Center, he said.
    The former group had essentially disappeared by the time of the second wave of immigration, either by assimilation, death or relocation, he said.
    Meadville’s cemetery, on Jefferson Street, is to be included in a CD-ROM catalogue of Jewish cemeteries around the world, compiled by Arlene Sacks of northern Virginia, Cukierkorn said.
    “I have helped her identify every Jewish burial in Honduras,” he said and pointed Sacks in the direction ofmore local cemeteries, like Meadville’s.
    Ideally, the disc will provide maps and dates for genealogical research, he said.
    While moving to the “boondocks” was financially prudent, the isolation meant social costs.  “Jewish life is a communal life,” Cukierkorn said.  “Judaism is not only a religion, it’s also a culture, ethnicity.”
    Marty Goldberg, campus adviser for Hillel – an international organization for Jewish students at colleges around the world – said Meadville has about 40 Jewish families today.
    “It’s tough in rural America,” he said.
    And beyond.
    In Honduras, where Cukierkorn’s wife is from, there are just 40 to 50 Jewish families in the whole country.  His grandparents moved to Brazil to make their way.
    Still, locally there is a viable community, buttressed by the college population of educators and students.
    Goldberg said contingents of the Jewish community got together twice this month to commemorate Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating the Jews’ victory over the Persians invadingJerusalem a short time after the era of Christ.
    Hanukkah’s eight day celebration began Dec. 14 – it follows a solar calendar with 13 months, Goldberg said.
    The 45 people gathered to play traditional games, eat traditional foods and socialize at the community center.  Later, another group collected at the college, by studentinvitation.
    “It’s an affirmation of faith … of identity,” he said.
    As the decades roll by, Jewish people find themselves intermarrying with gentiles.
    Mayor Richard Friedberg, who manages the local cemetery of some 60 graves, said it’s been a year since anyone has been buried there.  People often opt for burial in another town or in other local cemeteries.
    Assimilation, intermarriage, Cukierkorn said, quoting another rabbi, “are the thorn and the rose of integration in American society.”  Assimilation means acceptance and a simultaneous loss of culture.
    Cemeteries again illustrate changing times.  Long ago all the tombstones told the deceased’s tale in Hebrew.  Later, Hebrew and English were mixed, before Hebrew was discarded altogether, Cukierkorn said.
    Now, with the swing of the pendulum, some Jewish are starting to incorporate Hebrew again as a way to hold onto the roots of their traditions.