EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Members of Roberta Tepper’s family have chosen Beth Kehillah Cemetery as their final resting place for generations.
Tepper, 54, goes to the site at least twice a week to visit them, but over the past year, visits have been less ideal when looking at the state of the cemetery.
The Brigantine resident has complained to the cemetery board about fallen tree branches, hanging wires and groundhogs worsening the conditions of the site.
“There’s piles of branches on top of people’s graves,” Tepper said. “I just find all of this so disrespectful.”
Multiple families have since voiced their concerns over the cemetery, but cemetery management says it’s doing all it can. Management also feels the problem isn’t as severe as they’re making it out to be.
According to the cemetery’s rules and regulations, graves are entitled to “perpetual care,” which refers to the “regular mowing and trimming of the plots during the growing season, the removal of debris, and such other work as may be necessary to keep the graves in good and neat condition.”
Tepper said she first realized the extent of the issue in February 2020. Because of her regular visits, she voluntarily cleans around her family’s graves; but when a family friend passed and she began tending to that one, she found groundhogs borrowing around it.
She tried calling the cemetery to bring this to someone’s attention but got no response from the number posted online. Eventually, she found the number for cemetery Association President Jerome Greenberg. Tepper convinced him to visit the cemetery, and Greenberg said it wasn’t that big a deal.
“I know there are, in places, branches,” said Greenberg, 88. “The cemetery is almost 100 years old. It is our belief that the cemetery looks nice with trees on it. Trees are trees. We plant them, they grow and eventually they start to die. When the trees start to die, branches (fall).”
Later that year, Joanna Mell, 67, made her first visit to the cemetery in 16 years. The Quakertown, Pennsylvania, resident, whose family is from South Jersey, was appalled by what she saw.
“It looked like no one had done anything there to take care of it for at least several years,” Mell said. “I mean, it was a mess. In fact, I couldn’t even find my cousin’s headstone. I had to dig around. There was this tree ... next to his plot, and I could not find his headstone.”
Like Tepper, Mell also tried calling cemetery management with no luck. She even came back in May with another cousin to try to straighten things up themselves. Finally, she posted a negative Google review for the location, and it got the attention of Tepper and the two began communicating.
“My relatives’ burial plot is completely overgrown,” the review said. “There was a large hole that looked like an animal had burrowed in the ground. I am disgusted.”
Mell also reached out to Greenberg, and she also felt like her complaints were being dismissed.
Greenberg said the cemetery has about $900,000 in the perpetual care fund, which comes from half of the $1,800 plots it sells to families. The fund has been invested in bonds and stocks for a 1% return. That return, $9,000, is used to care for 3,000 graves. Additionally, $2,000 of that return is spent on branch removal annually.
“So it’s not like we’re not trying,” Greenberg said, “but we don’t have a lot of money to do it.”
Two years ago, cemetery maintenance was done by inmates from the Atlantic County jail. Due to COVID-19, that program ended.
To Mell, this doesn’t excuse the condition of the cemetery, especially when considering Jewish customs.
“Taking care of the dead holds a very, very high place in Jewish tradition,” she said. “Taking care of the dead is extremely important. As far as I’m concerned, this president of the cemetery association should have turned over the job a long time ago to somebody who could stay on top of things.”
An association meeting is set for 4 p.m. Aug. 12 at the cemetery. The meeting is public, and Tepper plans to attend with other families. She wants their collective frustration heard, and hopes to one day turn things around internally.
“I want to be on the board,” she said, “because that’s my family, and if you’re not gonna take care of them, I will. I’ll make sure that we get people to mow the lawn and pick up the sticks. Even if funds are tight, if that is true, then I would ask families that are in the area to come and volunteer and help.”
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