I was making the cemetery rounds with my in-laws a few years ago before Rosh Hashana when we were lucky enough to gain entry to the B’nai David Cemetery on one of two days it was to be unlocked during the year. This cemetery is off the beaten path, tucked away behind a high - graffitied wall, and rusty chain link fencing, and surrounded by vacant and trash strewn city lots on Van Dyke south of six mile. The rusty and bent iron gate was open and we drove up the cracked and weedy driveway. The grass was high and weeds wound themselves aggressively around the stones. Graves had been dug up by roaming dogs, headstones had fallen by shifting ground.
What we discovered that day on the east side of Detroit looked more like the remains of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, not the resting place of more than 1,300 Jews in an American city with one of the wealthiest and illustrious Jewish communities in the world.
Congregation B’nai David, the synagogue that owned the cemetery of the same name, had all but disappeared from Metro Detroit. B’nai David (originally Beth David) had a long and esteemed history dating back to about 1896, but after a hundred plus year run, they were unable to hang on any longer. One man was left with the key to the synagogue’s cemetery gate and a bank account with $16. Synagogue funds had been used to pay for temporary space, payroll, and other expenses after the sale of the last permanent B’nai David building in Southfield. Perpetual care funds had also disappeared.
After our family decided to try and do some clean-up at the cemetery, my daughter Eva began to organize a community wide clean-up effort last Spring. A small group of dedicated adults helped Eva to bring together more than 150 people on a cool Sunday last April. We made a small dent which led to more clean up efforts.
We’ve now organized a board of directors into a 501 c 3 that will oversee and help to preserve this cemetery. The board is not affiliated with the former synagogue and its goal is only to restore and maintain the cemetery. Many people have come forward to visit family at B’nai David. In one case, a man who hadn’t been to the cemetery since 1942, returned to visit the grave of his cousin, an army pilot during WWII, who had died in a plane crash. Another woman, in her 60’s, whose mother had died when she was a child, came to visit her mother’s grave. She had never been before. The great-great-grandson of the founding rabbi, Rabbi Ezekiel Ashushkin, came with his son to visit their esteemed ancestor, and on and on.
The B’nai David Cemetery has a rich history and is filled with amazing stories of immigration, success, love, marriage, death, failure, and tragedy. Consider helping to preserve this historical gem by donating to the B’nai David Care and Preservation Project and whether you want to get your hands dirty by pulling weeds, or not, come visit this incredibly interesting place this during our April, 2015 cleanup.