Restoration of Bisbee-Douglas Jewish cemetery honors pioneer history

A visit to the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery on March 11, 2020 revealed toppled tombstones and graves in need of repair. Volunteers made efforts to clean up the site in 2016, but the cemetery was not secure from vandals. (Photo: Virgil Hancock)

The recent restoration of the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery, established in 1904, allows the Jewish pioneers buried there to “rest in dignity,” as Stuart Mellan, former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, told the audience at the Federation’s “Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future” event on Nov. 17.

Architect Ben Lepley created steel supports with ben rods set in concrete to hold up some of the gravestones at the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery and protect them from toppling over. [Photo: Thomas Sayler-Brown]
Metal bars set in concrete now support the headstone of Mary Greenberg (1871-1917) at the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery. (Photo: Virgil Hancock)
A decorated grave marker denotes the resting place of Max Greenbaum (1859-1937). (Photo: Virgil Hancock)
A 1993 plaque commemorates an earlier rededication of the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery. (Photo: Virgil Hancock)
A new steel fence surrounds the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery. (Photo: Thomas Sayler-Brown)
A Star of David adorns the new gate of the Bisbee-Douglas Jewish Cemetery. (Photo: Virgil Hancock)
A plaque next to the new gate commemorates both the 1993 rededication and the 2020 restoration. (Photo: Thomas Sayler-Brown)

A bus tour of the cemetery and other historic sites in Bisbee and Douglas on March 11 turned out to be one of the last in-person events the Federation held before the community went into lockdown mode in the face of the coronavirus epidemic. But the restoration, overseen by local architects Thomas Sayler-Brown and Ben Lepley, has continued.

The restoration is funded in part by a matching grant from Jorge Ilitzky, a rancher with ancestors buried at the cemetery, and Richard Rosen, a community member moved by a previous visit to the site with his late son, Landon. It includes a new, gated entrance and security fence, as well as new plantings, restoration of brick and cement work on gravesites, and a new dedication plaque. The Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center and the Landon N. Rosen International School of Writers for Harmony Foundation were partners in the project.

The Federation stepped in to help accomplish the fundraising and coordinate the restoration. As Mellan told the AJP in February, when there is no one else to accomplish a task, “the Federation can be that source of strength.”

Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of the Federation and Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, sees the project as a reflection of the community’s values.

“The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona embraced this critical project in recognition of the sacred responsibility or mitzvah — by restoring the commemoration of our Jewish predecessors in Bisbee-Douglas, we have committed ourselves to a truly selfless act, one where no reciprocation is ever anticipated.  A reflection of our community’s values, this was such an important act of loving kindness for Stu Mellan that he insisted he wanted to see it through to completion even after his official retirement had been reached.  We all owe Stu, Thomas Sayler-Brown, and numerous generous donors our gratitude for undertaking this act of chesed (loving kindness) on behalf of our entire community,” he says.

Repairs and new plantings are still underway. Planting basins with local vegetation were created in June, and Sonoran wildflower seeds were spread throughout the cemetery in November.  Crews of parolees will provide ongoing weed control; the parolees get one day removed from their parole sentence for every hour they work. Their work is overseen by a neighbor, Gilbert Marrufo, who has lovingly watched over the cemetery for a number of years. He regularly waters the new planting and meets with visitors. He also is working with Richard Rosen to provide lighting and security.

Those wishing to visit the cemetery may contact the Williams House museum in Douglas at (520) 364-7370 for directions and to inquire about arranging group visits.