Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School students are helping the living find the dead.
Twelfth-graders began work on a service project on Friday to digitize the burial records at the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery and, in the process, gained a greater appreciation for the history rooted in the Southeast Baltimore burial ground where philanthropists Harry and Jeanette Weinberg were laid to rest.
On an unseasonably frigid fall morning, students, draped in winter coats, hats and gloves, scattered the grounds and photographed tombstones to prepare entering the stones’ information online.
Right away, one student, Miriam R., noticed some of the headstones, which date back to the 1800s, had individual footers with names and dates. Others had the name of a husband and wife listed on the top and bottom. There was also one that had a paint pallet. (Editor’s note: Beth Tfiloh does not give out students’ last names.)
For Miriam, each tombstone presented its own unique story that she feels is important to take to a wider community that may not otherwise have the opportunity to visit the site.
“It was cool seeing the different formats people used to write down the names and the dates,” she said. “It was also very cool to speculate about what some of these people’s lives may have been like based on the information and designs of their tombstones.”
Social media network sites such as Facebook help people track down the living. Other destinations such as Find A Grave offer a quick guide to famous graves and a near-complete records of many obscure cemeteries.
But in the last several years, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore has grown used to finding a specific request, especially at Hebrew Friendship, Steve Venick said. As president of the JCA, Venick extends a hand to the bereaved or to the simply curious who want to track down a deceased family member, friends or prominent figure from the city’s past.
Venick, 42, of Pikesville said the digital photos, transcribed by the JCA and volunteers, will make that information more accessible at Hebrew Friendship on JCA’s website.
“We get calls all the time from relatives who are looking to locate their family members and ancestors,” said Venick, whose organization maintains 14 of Baltimore’s older Jewish cemeteries. “If you type in someone’s name, the location and a picture of the gravestone will come up. So people can actually see where the gravestones are, look at the monument, and if they want, they can download a map and come and visit.”
The project, which Venick had pondered the last several years, is being funded by the Hackerman Foundation and supported by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Volunteer Connection.
Once Hebrew Friendship is compete, the plan is to start similar efforts at JCA’s other cemeteries, Venick said. He hopes, with the aid of more student volunteers from area schools, to have each cemetery finished within three years.
“It takes time to get kids together, which is the only way we can really do this,” said Venick, who added he expects to finish Hebrew Friendship in December. “It’s good community service for the kids who need it.”
Because headstones are highly credible records but are threatened by deterioration, vandalism and other variables, Beth Tfiloh student Mitchell J. said the need to make digitizing records is even more crucial.
“This is a really, really old community,” he said. “These stones will age, and we may lose them, but if we get them digitally, then we get to preserve them for a much longer time.”
There are 2,000 plots in Hebrew Friendship, a 13-acre tranquil setting of memorials and mausoleums sheltered by trees and green space in the 3600 block of East Baltimore Street. With the new online records, anyone will have the power to locate any grave in seconds on a map of the cemetery.
Key to this effort are young people and their affinity for modern technology and understanding their Jewish background, said Kenny Friedman, a JCA board member.
“For these kids to be as connected as they are with technology and their Jewish roots the way they are, I think it’s really important for them to see and do this,” Friedman said.
The initiative is a relatively new concept in the Baltimore Jewish community, but all around the country, cemeteries have been scanning, digitizing and putting online the record of their dead for many years.
The benefits of Web record keeping are manifold. It gives genealogy hunters an extra resource and the Google Map-like ability to hone in on a specific grave.
JCA is using software from Wisconsin-based Ramaker & Associates Cemetery Information Management System, which provides more than 850 cemeteries with the Cemetery Information Management System. The system, also known as CIMS, helps keep track of cemetery plots via a touch-screen kiosk, laptop or cellphone application.
Student Ben S. said he looked forward to entering the data after spending two hours taking photographs and charting each tombstone he and his partner completed.
“Within the Jewish community, it’s important to do this to help make the community a better place,” he said. “From your own perspective, I’m sure that anyone would want to know where their grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.”
Beth Tfiloh High School principal Renee Koplon said she believes her students understand the significance of their contributions. She also feels the project helped prepare them for their upcoming spring trip to Israel and Poland.
“A lot of these service projects are helping people, which is what we want them to be,” Koplon said. “But this has a little bit more of an intellectual aspect to it, which I think resonates with the kids.”