Remembering Douglas’s forgotten pioneer Jews along the Mexican border

A grave stands vandalized at the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish cemetery, March 11, 2020. (Mary Levy Peachin)

Time has been harsh to this graveyard. The Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery has been desecrated by vandals, student initiations, truck drivers busting through the barbed wire fence, party-goers, and more than a century of neglect.

A headstone at the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish cemetery shows signs of neglect, March 11, 2020. (Mary Levy Peachin)

The scene is grim. Looming 100 yards to the south, the U.S.-Mexico border wall distracts. Beyond it, the city of Agua Prieta’s royal blue water tank notes the city’s elevation.

Sadly, time almost has destroyed the half-acre cemetery. Family efforts have been made to repair some of the 22 headstones; missing burial sites were located by laser.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Phelps Dodge, which owned Bisbee’s historical Copper Queen Mine, and Calumet & Arizona opened their smelters, Douglas became a boomtown. Many Jews came to the city to set themselves up as merchants. Now the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, Tucson’s Jewish History Museum, and the Douglas Historical Society are collaborating on a project to preserve these important reminders of this Jewish pioneer history.

On a recent visit organized by the JFSA, JHM, and Douglas Historical Society, a number of the family members of the deceased were tear-struck when they saw the state of the cemetery. Others, both Jewish and members of other faiths, shared their anguish.

The plan to preserve the cemetery is simple. Replace the current fence with one that will secure the site while keeping it accessible to desert animals, xeriscape the landscape to attract birds, provide proper drainage, and add Joshua trees.

This action is more than a gesture to our dearly departed. It is a meaningful act of respect that is long overdue.

Historian Abe Villarreal, an administrator from Western New Mexico University, shared insights on the March 11 trip that deeply affected all of us, as he described the weeds and litter, the toppled tombstones, remains of two altars, and a 1993 welcoming plaque that memorializes these Jewish Pioneers of Cochise County.

The Bisbee-Douglas Jewish cemetery is believed to be the oldest Jewish and one of Arizona’s oldest pioneer cemeteries. Most of the buried were born in the late 19th century. The Sons of Israel Congregation formally incorporated the cemetery in 1909. It is noted that the first burial in 1912 was Harry Kline. Family names such as Berkowitz, Cohen (Levy), Greenburg, and Shapiro are etched into headstones, some written in Hebrew.

“The small Jewish community of early Douglas days deserves better than an abandoned cemetery lost to history,” he said. “The burial area was established in 1904 and Douglas was incorporated in 1905. The Jews were there to help form the beginning of a new American community. We should be there to remember them in Douglas, a city still going strong more than a century later.”

To donate to the restoration 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.