Local | Religion & Jewish Life

Local Jewish cemetery, once derelict, gains national attention

Volunteers recruited by Peace Corps volunteer Brooke Nagle start cleanup work on the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery on March 17. (Courtesy Brooke Nagle)
The Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery, cleared of brush and debris, on March 17.
The Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery, cleared of brush and debris, on March 17. (Courtesy Brooke Nagle)

Every graveyard tells its own story, says Tucsonan Richard Rosen, former owner of the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery, located about 100 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. Regardless of its current condition, the land still radiates a strong spiritual energy, says Rosen.

“There’s something right about it, and there’s also something magical about this place,” he says.

Rosen and Jorge Ilitzky purchased the cemetery from Tucson’s Congregation Anshei Israel in 2005. The synagogue’s current leadership wasn’t even aware it owned the property. “Someone must have donated it,” Rabbi Emeritus Arthur R. Oleisky told the AJP, but the history “is murky.”

Rosen and Ilitzky managed the site for about 10 years before donating the land to the Jewish History Museum in December 2014.

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One of the Ilitzky family tombstones (Courtesy Brooke Nagle)

Their partnership began by happenstance. Rosen’s extensive work documenting Jewish cemeteries throughout Eastern Europe inspired his interest, while Ilitzky wanted to develop the site because three of his relatives are buried there.

“I wanted to make a Jewish historical site, and try to fix up everything as it was,” Ilitzky adds.

The Ilitzky family name adorns the largest tombstone at the site, which rests at the center of the graveyard. During a visit five years ago, Ilitzky was devastated to see the plots either pillaged or vandalized.

Ilitzky currently resides in Mexico City, working as a commodity trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and owns a cattle ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico, about 100 miles southeast of Douglas.

Ultimately, maintaining the cemetery became too cumbersome, says Rosen, which prompted them to donate the property.

Young vandals excited because of the "Freddie Krueger" character in horror movies tried to steal this headstone with a truck and a winch, a local rancher told Peace Corps volunteer Brooke Nagle.
Young vandals excited because of the “Freddie Krueger” character in horror movies tried to steal this headstone with a truck and a winch, a neighboring rancher told Peace Corps volunteer Brooke Nagle. The vandals fled when the rancher said he was going to call the sheriff. (Courtesy Brooke Nagle)

The plot has 19 Jewish graves with 13 tombstones, and measures 150 by 200 feet. Founded in 1904, a year before Douglas was incorporated, this was the first exclusively Jewish cemetery in Arizona. All of the deceased were buried between the 1920s and 1960s.

Bryan Davis, executive director at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum, says the location and feel of the Douglas cemetery are quite striking. Davis toured the site about a month ago, and expected to see a small section of Jewish graves in a secular cemetery. Instead, Davis walked the exclusive plots, reading the sacred Judaic memorials along a picturesque desert landscape that flirts with America’s secure wall.

“I was deeply moved by seeing the Hebrew and Jewish iconography right near the border wall,” Davis says.

Not caring for those buried at the site is irresponsible, disrespectful and a terrible disservice to the Jewish community, he says. Hence, the organization plans to rehire the curators and architects involved in the opening of Tucson’s Holocaust History Center in order to successfully restore the Douglas site.

“We really want to pick up the pace for caring for the property,” he says. “And ideally it’s the whole community that can come together and take care of this.”

The Jewish community throughout the country is willing to help as well, Davis says. His organization recently received a donation from a chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society, literally “sacred society” in Hebrew) based in New York.

“It was inspiring that all of a sudden there’s all this energy around this cemetery,” he says.

Brooke Nagle, a Peace Corps volunteer from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., lived in Douglas while teaching English language classes for Frontera de Cristo in Agua Prieta, Mexico. In March, Nagle and 15 local volunteers led the first cleanup project this year at the obscured cemetery.

When they arrived everything was in shambles, she says. Overgrown weeds divided the lonely graves, broken glass was strewn about, tombstones were vandalized or pushed over while a feeble, broken down fence guarded the desecrated land.

“It was just sad to see that it hadn’t been cared for,” she says.

Nagle was happy with the efforts of her team that day, she says, and getting to know the people of Douglas was wonderful and quite intriguing. Moreover, the preservation of this hallowed land could further enrich this inviting border town.

Looking forward, she would like to see a memory garden or benches added to the location but says repairing tombstones, building a security gate and general maintenance should be first priority.

“I would love to see it just being taken care of and not neglected,” she says.

This is not the first effort to bring new life to the final resting place for these Jewish settlers.

In November 1992, members of the University of Arizona Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives — a historical society that documented Jewish pioneers throughout Arizona, New Mexico, southern California and west Texas — uprooted weeds and fixed broken headstones at the cemetery. The Cochise County Historical Society led this particular project, and both groups attended the rededication ceremony held in April the following year.

Barry Friedman, a retired physician, is a board member at the Jewish History Museum and former board president.

Friedman attended a recent meeting at the site, held on Sunday, June 12, and says it’s exciting to see such an eclectic group of people participating in this restoration effort. That day the volunteers included young folks, parents, local residents and people from outside Arizona, all of whom represented different faiths but wanted to help. As the team continues their research into those buried there, each story grows and becomes energized, he says.

“There’s so much we don’t know,” Friedman says. “It’s fascinating, and it brings history back to life.”

When Nagle, the Peace Corps volunteer, reached out to the Jewish community for help earlier this year, Friedman cleared his schedule and pitched in, he says. And he’s hoping this new wave of local interest will continue to strengthen.

Along with the museum’s plans to restore and secure the site, Friedman wants to create a fund that will finance the long-term upkeep of the cemetery, he says.

Friedman expects that this will be one of his last extensive community projects, he says warmly. In a perfect world, he would love to see this charming Jewish landmark emulate the beautiful Tohono Chul park botanical gardens, located on Tucson’s northwest side.

“And I would like to have it be a nice, pleasant desert spot that honors those buried there,” he adds.

A Douglas native behind this mission is Abe Villarreal, communications director at Western New Mexico University, who became interested in restoring the landmark during a recruiting event about six weeks ago.

Although the memorial is quite well known, he was unaware of its current condition and historical importance, Villarreal says.

He wrote about the unsung cemetery for his weekly column at the Silver City Sun-News, and the overwhelming response prompted his research and restoration effort. Now, the story about the modest Arizona mining town where he grew up feels more elaborate, he says.

“Douglas is not so black-and-white all of a sudden,” Villarreal says. “And I think that it’s important for the people who live in the Douglas community to understand the complex history.”

He applauds the previous cleanup effort, but says much more can be done. He has three major goals for improving the site: build a fortified security gate, replace missing or vandalized headstones and update the landscaping.

In the future, Villarreal would like to have a respectful mural painted and install informational placards as well as park benches. In order to begin financing these projects, Villarreal started a GoFundMe account and hopes to raise $5,000.

As Villarreal grows older, his love for Douglas grows as well, he says. And restoring the final resting place for Jewish settlers who shaped his hometown is one way to give back.

“Learning about their lives, what they contributed and what we have in common with them,” he says, “it starts to paint a picture of the community.”

Villarreal is optimistic about building an interfaith coalition that will maintain an invaluable Jewish cemetery and preserve Douglas’ early history.

“I’m very hopeful that this will soon be a site that will be an open, protected and educational site for visitors,” he says.

David J. Del Grande is a freelance writer in Tucson.