Douglas Jewish cemetery evokes pioneer past

A gravestone at the Jewish cemetery in Douglas shows signs of vandalism. (Benjamin Herman)
A gravestone at the Jewish cemetery in Douglas shows signs of vandalism. (Benjamin Herman)

Touring the U.S.-Mexico border may conjure up intrigue, fear and compassion, depending on one’s perspective. For Congregation Anshei Israel’s Assistant Rabbi Benjamin Herman, checking out the border led to an adventure in Jewish pioneer history.

On Nov. 29, 2012, Robert Feinman, vice president of the humanitarian organization Humane Borders, escorted a group of rabbis on a border tour, says Herman. “We went to Nogales. We didn’t cross but we saw signs of life at a water station,” which Humane Borders maintains on routes known to be used by migrants coming north through the desert. The group also attended a panel discussion with a local rancher and fruit producer, along with a panelist from Bracker’s Department Store, founded by a Jewish family in 1924.

“The whole trip made me want to do something,” Herman told the AJP. “I met a woman [in Tucson] married to a U.S. citizen. Their four children were born here. She waited for the school bus with them but hid when it came. She was literally living in the shadows. It made me want to go on the board of Humane Borders.”

douglas cem IMG_3692Herman was curious about seeing another border town and asked Feinman, an advisory council member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council, to join him. An obvious choice was Douglas, which is “within spitting distance of the border,” says Herman. There was another reason for the rabbi and Feinman to visit Douglas: to see the Jewish cemetery that had been vandalized.

The two traveled to Douglas on Aug. 21. “It took forever to find the cemetery,” says Herman. “I found the search for it to be an adventure,” Feinman told the AJP. “It was almost like a treasure hunt. We’d ask someone, try to follow their directions down a desert dirt road, not find it, and ask again and again until there it was in the middle of nowhere, just a stone’s throw from the border with the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. I’m not sure if the locals really didn’t know where it was or if they were wondering if we were going to vandalize it.”

douglas cem IMG_3694It was very different from the Tombstone Jewish cemetery, which is well maintained, says Herman. “We weren’t equipped to do any restoration. Hebrew [letters] were broken. We need help standing the gravestones up that were knocked over.”

There was a fence around the cemetery, which wasn’t closed, says Feinman. “It was like walking into a place that was frozen in time.” All of the gravestones were easy to read and mostly dated back from the 1920s to the 1950s, he says, but others were even older. “Pumpkins and squash were growing there wild. It didn’t look like they were planted.”

A grave stone that was knocked off its pedestal.
A grave stone that was knocked off its pedestal.

For Feinman, seeing the Douglas cemetery “was an emotional experience that made me try to imagine what it was like back in the day, what had brought Jews to that small corner of the planet. Why had the cemetery been abandoned?”

Although Douglas doesn’t have a Jewish community today, nobody wants to see a cemetery vandalized, says Herman. “There needs to be better security. And I’m concerned about this because cemeteries are so important to Judaism. They tell us where our ancestors came from. What message does this send?”

Herman would like to return to the Douglas cemetery with supplies and more assistance. “Maybe through this story,” he says, “we can organize a group to help.” Sharon Glassberg, director of the Federation’s Coalition for Jewish education and principal at Hebrew High, is planning for teens to be involved in the cemetery’s restoration. When local teens go on the March of the Living to Poland every spring, they help clean up the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, notes Glassberg. “Why don’t we do this in our own backyard? A concerted effort needs to be made to restore the Douglas cemetery.”

For more information, contact Herman at 745-5550, Feinman at narpansoy@gmail.com, or Glassberg at 577-9393, ext. 122, or sglassberg@jfsa.org.