Without this work, the people buried there would have been “lost to time”
Published by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
By ADAM REINHERZ July 10, 2023
Burial markers at Kesher Israel Cemetery. Photo by Chuck Fuller
The quest to prevent erasure prompted two genealogists to painstakingly preserve the history of a Jewish cemetery in Port Vue.
Between December 2021 and May, Chuck Fuller and Rich Katz photographed illegible gravestones, gently removed lichen, researched early 20th-century Jewish life and pieced together a largely forgotten story.
Without this work, Katz said, the people buried there would have been “lost to time.”
More than a century before Fuller, a non-Jewish White Oak resident, gently washed the site’s one readable marker and confirmed a trove of local Jewish history; a band of western Pennsylvanians consecrated the surrounding area. On Oct. 11, 1903, the Calvary Cemetery in Port Vue was dedicated. Four years later, the property’s eastern edge was bought by Kesher Israel Congregation of McKeesport.
Between 1907-1917, about 28 Jews were buried in a space later described as “Kesher Israel Cemetery.”
The well-kept site, Fuller explained, consists of two nearly uniform rows of markers. Following Kesher Israel’s dissolution in the 1930s, the space was overseen by neighbors. In 2020, the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh began maintaining the space.
Despite any documentation formally linking Kesher Israel with the specific land, JCBA called the site “Kesher Israel Cemetery.”
Fuller and Katz set out to confirm Kesher Israel’s connection to the burial site.
Part of the difficulty was that despite scouring hundreds of related documents, the
congregation’s name didn’t appear on any materials “found to date,” Fuller said.
The two genealogists built family trees of people affiliated with Kesher Israel. Fuller and Katz noticed that while most of the death records from the era said “Port Vue,” one said “Port Vue Cem.”
Without any other Jewish cemeteries in Port Vue, it could be assumed the burial ground belonged to Kesher Israel, but further proof was needed, Katz told the Chronicle from his home in Torrance, California.
Fuller returned to the site and observed the two rows of neatly kept graves. One marker had a partially obscured date. Fuller photographed the inscription and sent the image to Katz.
The Jewish Californian noticed the Hebrew letters vav and zayin — the last two letters of the word Tamuz, a month on the Jewish calendar — and Hebrew letters indicating the Jewish year 5671, as well as the English date July 16. Katz then put the Hebrew and English characters together, confirmed the dates on hebcal.com and realized the stone was from a burial that occurred on July 16, 1911 (20 Tamuz 5671).
“Then came the tricky part,” Fuller said.
Gravestone of Jennie Zvibel. Photo by Chuck Fuller
The genealogists had a record indicating that 2-year-old Jennie Zvibel had died on July 16, 1911. Zvibel’s family was affiliated with Kesher Israel, and although the toddler’s date of death matched the scant information on the partially legible monument, more proof was needed to pair Kesher Israel with the Port Vue cemetery.
Fuller noticed that the memorial in question was “covered heavily in bright yellow lichen,” he said.
Removing the plantlike fungus that typically forms on walls, rocks and trees wasn’t simple. Even with the gentlest of products and brushes, there was a possibility of further disturbing the headstone. Fuller and Katz debated their options. They reached out to Barry Rudel, JCBA’s executive director, who advised them to cautiously adopt necessary measures.
After carefully spraying, washing and brushing the stone, “we got the engraving that tells the story,” Fuller said.
Alongside the toddler’s Hebrew name was her father’s — Antzil — the same name that appeared on Jennie Zvibel’s death certificate, which also marked “Port Vue Cem” as her place of burial.
By proving that Zvibel was interred on that piece of land in Port Vue, the genealogists used the cemetery’s name to identify others buried there.
Through death records, Fuller and Katz learned that most of the deceased were children. That realization explained an earlier dichotomy. Despite a pristine area, nearly all of the stones were illegible — not because of negligence but because of the poor quality of the markers themselves.
“These were children’s stones, and often young parents didn’t have a lot of money to invest in a stone on a child who lived a day, a month or a few years,” Fuller said.
Of the approximately 28 people buried at Kesher Israel Cemetery — stone erosion and insufficient documentation preclude a definite number — Fuller and Katz identified 16 Jews. The genealogists uploaded their information to findagrave.com and detailed corresponding data within a report titled “The Jewish Cemetery in Port Vue.”
Fuller and Katz’s efforts weren’t spurred by a desire for money or fame.
“All we’re trying to do is provide some record that allows people to preserve the memory of their families,” Fuller said.
Once these people are forgotten, Katz said, “they are lost.”
Safeguarding the tale of Kesher Israel Cemetery required a data-based approach, and “we have to thank our wives because we spent a lot of time on this.” The takeaway, though, is in the details, he continued: It’s critical to document family history; otherwise, it’s “lost to time.” PJC