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Jewish cemetery in Malden restored to honor forgotten souls

MALDEN — They are forgotten no more.

The 1,439 souls who are buried in a once-abandoned burial ground in Malden were recently recognized in a solemn ceremony that celebrated their lives and the restoration of the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts.

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The cemetery was established in 1851 for poor Jewish immigrants, and most of the dead here are children. Only 181 were age 20 and older. Some 1,188 — more than 80 percent — were age 4 and under.

“It was believed that this cemetery was full in 1918 because of a flu pandemic that took place in Massachusetts. It is not true,” said Stanley J. Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. “The truth is, in the years before immunization, children were very susceptible to diseases like mumps, and measles, whooping cough, and rubella. They were the immigrants of Boston, the forgotten children of Boston.

“This demographic of children dominating a Jewish cemetery like this is very unique. There is no Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts that even comes close to this demographic and for that matter, none in the United States of America.”

Over the past two years, Kaplan personally researched those buried while his organization completed a $100,000 restoration of the 1-acre parcel on Lebanon Street in the Maplewood section of Malden.

The first person buried there was Sarah Seaman of 17 Rochester St. in Boston, who died in July 1852 of severe malnutrition at the age of 2 years and 15 days, according to Kaplan.

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The last burial at the site was in 1914. By 1990, the problems with overgrown brush, broken gravestones and stairs, and a crumbling wall proved to be too much for the Malden Jewish War Veterans Post 74, which had taken over the care of the abandoned cemetery in 1949.

Emma Bibbins, 15, of Medford, placed a stone atop a marker bearing a child’s name; people entered the grounds; and a stone commemorated a baby’s short life .

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Emma Bibbins, 15, of Medford, placed a stone atop a marker bearing a child’s name; people entered the grounds; and a stone commemorated a baby’s short life .

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when Malden resident Barbara Tolstrup decided to highlight the problems with the cemetery on her local cable access TV show, that Jewish Cemetery Association officials decided to restore it.

“I call it a disconnect. There was no community here to speak for it,” said Kaplan. “When I saw that video, my eyes opened. I said we can’t be the caretakers . . . and allow this place to remain an undignified resting place.”

No one even knew the correct name for the cemetery, which was often referred to as the Maplewood Cemetery or the Lebanon Cemetery because of its location on Lebanon Street.

The cemetery now has a new wrought-iron fence and gate with its correct name, Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground, proudly displayed at the entrance.

Tolstrup, who is also chairwoman of the Malden Historic Commission, said she is thrilled with the transformation.

“We always knew about this spot but never paid it much attention,” she said. “None of us really knew the significance of this site.”

Both Tolstrup and Kaplan said the cemetery speaks to the hardships of Jewish immigrants at the time.

“They were under siege in Europe,” said Kaplan. “They came here with nothing and they had to build a new life for themselves and their families. Many of them didn’t have the resources to do it.”

Regina Butnick Segelman and Benjamin Segelman around 1905. Regina died at age 29 and is buried at the cemetery.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Regina Butnick Segelman and Benjamin Segelman around 1905. Regina died at age 29 and is buried at the cemetery.

Most of the children’s graves have no markers, and so wide swaths of the cemetery remain bare.

“The reason there aren’t many monuments here is the rabbis told them to instead ‘invest in life,’ ” Kaplan said.

To honor the children who have no markers, individual stones with the names of the deceased have been installed along a pathway that cuts through the middle of the cemetery. Those who care about the cemetery maintenance can sponsor one for $118. The sum was chosen because in Judaism, the number 18 is a holy number meaning health, Kaplan explained.

“When you look at this bare ground you have to stop and think about the fact that this is not bare ground. There are children – hundreds of them – buried in these spaces,” Tolstrup pointed out.

Malden once boasted a very large Jewish community that reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s at almost 15,000, according to the Mystic River Jewish Communities Project. According to Tolstrup, the city once had eight synagogues; it now has three.

She said the Jewish population started to decline for several reasons, including an urban renewal project that razed the predominantly Jewish Suffolk Square neighborhood along Ferry Street.

“And then as some became more affluent, they moved out of Suffolk Square and into other parts of Malden or into more affluent suburbs,” Tolstrup said.

The oldest Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts is in East Boston. The Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery on Wordsworth Street was established in 1844, just seven years before the Malden cemetery.

Even though the Malden cemetery is old and most of those buried there were too young to leave any direct descendants, the restoration project has touched the hearts of many in the community, according to Rabbi David Kudan of Temple Tifereth Israel and Congregation Agudas Achim-Ezrath Israel in Malden.

One member of Temple Tifereth Israel, Gerry Marcus of Wakefield, collected nearly 1,500 stones from her summer home in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, so that those attending the rededication ceremony on Sept. 22 could place them upon the graves. She explained that it’s a Jewish tradition to leave a stone, rather than flowers, upon a gravestone as a way of remembrance.

“I always thought that beach rocks were special rocks,” Marcus said. “I started doing this for my parents, collecting the rocks from the beach for my parents’ graves. And when I heard about this, I said, ‘Well, they need beach rocks, too.’ ”

More than 100 people attended the rededication ceremony to pay their respects and to leave a rock. They included state Treasurer Steven Grossman, Combined Jewish Philanthropies president Barry Shrage, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, Century Bank & Trust Company chief executive Marshall Sloane, and Harold Bass of the Malden Post 74 Jewish War Veterans.

Sisters Sheila Kipnis of Malden and Ruth Band of Medford had a more personal reason to attend. They did it to honor their mother.

“Our grandmother is buried here. She died when my mother was 4 years old,” Kipnis said. “My mother was always afraid the cemetery was going to be destroyed and she wanted us to keep a watch on it.”

A restored gravestone shows that their grandmother, Regina Segelman, died on Feb. 28, 1914, at the age of 29.

“We didn’t know our grandmother,” Band added. “So this is a sort of tribute to our mother.”

Robert Torosian, who grew up around the corner from the cemetery, said he and his sister purchased a stone marker because the cemetery holds fond childhood memories, including sledding on the back part of it. Torosian said his family moved to the neighborhood in 1955 and his father remembered hearing mourners crying there on Saturday mornings.

The city of Malden supported the project by installing new sidewalks and helping with the cleanup and landscaping. The city also plans to install a light at the entrance, according to Kathleen Manning Hall, chief administrative officer in the mayor’s office.

Kaplan said he is very moved by the overwhelming support the cemetery association’s work has received in the community. But for him, it is about restoring dignity and making sure that dignity lasts.

“We have a very active maintenance program, so that once it’s in this dignified state, we will keep it in this dignified state,” he said. “We will not let it go back to the undignified cemetery it once was.”

Mark Micheli can be reached at markfmicheli@gmail.com.

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