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Matching funds sought for historic borderlands Jewish cemetery restoration

The Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery after a 2016 cleanup effort.

There is an inspirational feeling when you walk onto the site of the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery, says Richard Rosen, who likens it to the emotional uplift of stepping off a plane in Israel. “There’s a feeling of positive spirituality,” he says.

Established in 1904, the cemetery, just 100 yards from the Mexican border, is one of the oldest in Arizona and has long been in need of care. In recent years, volunteers have helped sporadically to clean debris and weeds, but there is minimal security and many of the gravesites have been vandalized, their headstones toppled.

Now, thanks to the generosity of Rosen and the Ilitzky family, with help from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, a restoration project is in sight. Rosen and the Ilitzky family have provided a challenge grant that will match donations up to $30,000.

Rosen is helping fund the project in memory of his late son, Landon Rosen, who drowned in 2012 at the age of 20. The two had visited the Douglas cemetery together. Rosen created The Landon Rosen Writer’s Foundation in his honor.

Jorge Ilitzky, a rancher in Chihuahua, Mexico, has three relatives buried at the cemetery. Rosen met him years ago at a Shabbat service in Scottsdale, and says Ilitzky’s forebear ran the drugstore in Douglas “in the time of Pancho Villa.”

In 2005, Rosen and Ilitzky purchased the cemetery from Congregation Anshei Israel; no one is sure who donated it to CAI, Emeritus Rabbi Arthur R. Oleisky told the AJP in 2016. Rosen and Ilitzky transferred the deed to the half-acre parcel to the Jewish History Museum in 2014. “I wanted to make a Jewish historical site, and try to fix up everything as it was,” Ilitzky told the AJP.

The museum helped develop a plan for the restoration, bringing in architects Thomas Sayler-Brown and Ben Lepley, both of whom were involved in the design of the museum’s Holocaust History Center.  The deed was recently transferred to The Landon Rosen Writer’s Foundation.

The restoration will provide for resetting of gravestones, landscaping, a wrought iron security fence, solar lighting, and annual maintenance.

Federation stepped in to help accomplish the bulk of the fundraising, says Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

The Federation feels an obligation to restore this abandoned cemetery, he says, explaining that when there is no one else to accomplish the task, “the Federation can be that source of strength when it’s needed.”

Rosen has spent time in Poland and seen dilapidated cemeteries there, contributing to the restoration of one near Bialystok.

“My feeling about all this is very passionate because I feel like past is prologue,” he says, quoting Shakespeare. “I feel like the preservation of these sites is important.”

Rosen hopes to get the street next to the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery named for his son.  He also hopes to see historical tours visit the site once the restoration is complete.

To donate to the project, visit www.jfsa.org, mail a check to Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, 3718 E. River Road, Suite 100, Tucson, AZ 85718, or call 577-9393.