As a soaked and drizzly, overcast Sunday morning gave way to blue skies and white clouds, Erica Bloom and a smattering of determined volunteers descended on Baltimore’s Hebrew Friendship Cemetery on a mission to show past generations of Baltimore’s Jewish community the respect that they are due.
As the deputy director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, Bloom spearheaded recent cleanup efforts at the cemetery as part of JVC’s participation in Good Deeds Day on April 11.
Wearing gardening gloves, white t-shirts and face masks and armed with waste bags, Bloom and her compatriots removed everything from loose trash and debris to an inexplicable old tire from the cemetery grounds. The cleanup was one of two that had been scheduled for the day; the other, set at Knesseth Israel Cemetery, was postponed to May 2.
“It’s a small thing that I think people can do to show that respect,” said David Bloom, Erica Bloom’s husband, at the Hebrew Friendship cleanup.
Good Deeds Day, a global event, was started by The Ted Arison Family Foundation and Ruach Tova. The JVC has participated in the event since 2013, Erica Bloom said. Good Deeds Day is an international day of service, uniting people from more than 100 different countries to do good deeds for the benefit of fellow community members, she said.
“Since 2007, thousands of people all over the world have been doing volunteer projects on this specific date,” said Ilene Schwartz, co-chair of JVC’s Good Deeds Day programming.
In past years, JVC has been able to bring 100 or more volunteers together for events like cleanups of city streams or the Chesapeake Bay, Schwartz said. Due to social distancing restrictions, this year, in-person cleanups were limited to 20 to 30 people.
Though Good Deeds Day looked different from how it’s been done in the past, “JVC is offering safe and meaningful ways to volunteer and participate in this annual event,” said Erica Bloom, a member of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation.
JVC offered a number of different opportunities for those interested in volunteering.
In addition to cemetery cleanups, in-person opportunities included a DIY Clean Your Street with CHAI, Bloom said. Households signed up to clean their own local areas free of trash, with free cleaning kits provided by CHAI, while supplies lasted. Another cleanup was set to take place at Herring Run Park with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Department, but was postponed to April 18. At this event, volunteers will pick up trash and beautify the park in preparation for its use during the spring and summer months.
JVC also offered projects that could be completed within a person’s home using special kits. The JVC’s Service To Go projects included bagged meal kits, Mother’s Day kits and kid-sized tie dye mask kits.
With the bagged meal kits, volunteers were given a bagged lunch that already included water bottles, applesauce and cereal bars, Bloom said. Volunteers then made a sandwich to include with the meal, decorated the bag and dropped it all off at one of the weekly Bunches of Lunches collections that JVC organizes. These bagged lunches are then brought to various organizations that include Manna House and Charm City Care Connection.
The Mother’s Day kits included supplies to color cards, decorate tote bags and create “lollipop flowers,” Bloom said. The completed kits are to be donated to mothers supported by some of JVC’s nonprofit partners.
The kid-sized tie dye mask kits include materials to decorate face masks with tie dye colors, to be donated to the JVC’s school partners.
Over 300 volunteers participated across all of JVC’s Good Deeds Day offerings, Bloom estimated. To get the word out, JVC sent out invitations to those listed in their volunteer database and promoted the event through local publications and social media, while members of the board and the event’s co-chairs spread the word through their own networks.
JVC has been organizing cleanup operations at Jewish cemeteries for years, Bloom said. JVC chose to clean up the Hebrew Friendship and Knesseth Israel cemeteries for this year’s Good Deeds Day after local organizations such as Sol Levinson and the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore informed JVC of their state.
Prior to Good Deeds Day, Schwartz described both Hebrew Friendship and Knesseth Israel as being in need of a thorough cleanup, along with other cemeteries in the community.
“Cemeteries are in general not kept up, and it takes the community to step in and help to beautify and keep it in a condition that we all want to be able to go visit our loved ones,” Schwartz said.
At the cemetery cleanups, volunteers picked up trash and debris strewn about the cemeteries and polished monuments.
“We are encouraging people to participate at their comfort level,” Bloom said, when asked whether JVC was encouraging unvaccinated community members to participate in the in-person activities. “We feel it’s important to provide opportunities for people to engage in service in a way that’s accessible and comfortable for each individual. So that’s why we are offering opportunities for outside of the home for those that are comfortable, and we offer opportunities inside the home.”
Mark Smolarz, the chief operating and financial officer at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, was one of the volunteers at the cleanup.
“It’s important for us to respect the people who came before us,” he said.
Smolarz explained that Hebrew Friendship is one of the most significant cemeteries that the JVC is responsible for, as it is the resting place of prominent community members such as Harry and Jeanette Weinberg of The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
“It’s a way to honor them, to show that continued respect, that there remains a connection, that people still care, that their memory is something that still is important to the people who are living,” David Bloom said.
“I was raised that the last act of kindness that you can do for the dead is to maintain cemeteries,” said Jeremy Diamond of Pikesville. “That’s why I come out a few times a year.”
Calling the cemetery cleanup a big mitzvah, Diamond explained that “it’s something that you can’t be thanked for from the dead, so it’s even a higher level of a good thing to do.”
“It’s very important to honor our ancestors,” Erica Bloom said, “protecting the dignity and the memory of the people who are buried in that cemetery and the families who go and visit.”