Gold Country Jews battling preservationists over cemetary

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It's been 106 years since the last Jew was buried at the Nevada City Pioneer Jewish Cemetery.

Louis Dreyfuss died in 1890. He was 65. The owner of Nevada City's Milwaukee Brewery and United States Bakery and a father of 12, Dreyfuss remained in Gold Country longer than most Jews.

The majority left in 1875. Until about 30 years ago, there weren't any Jews to follow in either his footsteps or his final resting place. The Nevada Hebrew Benevolent Society, the original trustee of the cemetery, was defunct.

Today Jews have returned to Nevada County and the situation "has changed considerably," said Dr. Arnold Adicoff, a member of the 100-plus family Nevada County Jewish Community Center.

The NCJCC owns a building, conducts services, social programs, and Judaic and Hebrew classes. It maintains a lay rabbi who officiates at weddings and b'nai mitzvah — but not at funerals.

The NCJCC doesn't have access to the pioneer cemetery.

That's because the land is under the aegis of the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries, which took over as successor trustee in 1974.

In an effort to forge a cradle-to-grave Jewish community, NCJCC members want to reclaim the pioneer cemetery. Adicoff, chairman of the NCJCC Cemetery and Burials Committee, is spearheading the campaign.

"A cemetery is one of the first things a Jewish community sets up," he said.

Nevada City lacked a Jewish community when the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks filed a petition in Nevada County Superior Court for successor trustee status, on Oct. 15, 1964.

The commission petitioned the court for the right to oversee the property "for the benefit of the Jewish community of Nevada City, for the specific purpose of maintaining a burial ground upon said property," .

The commission now maintains seven such properties in Gold Country — including cemeteries in Marysville, Sonora and Nevada City. Over the years it maintained these cemeteries when there was no Jewish community to do so.

But in a recent letter to the commission, Adicoff wrote: "The Nevada County Jewish Community Center, a nonprofit religious corporation, is now ready, willing, and able to maintain the cemetery for the benefit of the local Jewish community.

"It now appears appropriate for the NCJCC to take its rightful place as successor to the Nevada Hebrew Benevolent Society."

The NCJCC is requesting that the commission voluntarily resign as trustee and consent to the appointment of the NCJCC as successor trustee. However, commission members say they can't turn the land over to the NCJCC.

"We have an obligation to preserve historic landmarks," said Seymour Fromer, executive director of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum and secretary and treasurer of the commission.

"When we go to the courts and ask for permission to preserve [an area], we are pledging that they remain historic landmarks. We can't go into the work of operating a cemetery."

Fromer, in a letter to Adicoff, wrote: "The Commission does not want to undertake any kind of joint venture for use of the property as an ongoing cemetery business. Nor is the Commission in a position to transfer the property to any organization for any use, including a cemetery business.

"For the Commission to transfer a portion of one of the memorial parks would prevent the Commission from fulfilling [its] obligations…Transferring the property would also undermine the Commission's credibility."

But the NCJCC is not asking the commission to change its mission or its operation, Adicoff said. The NCJCC would like the commission to maintain the 20 pioneer graves on an approximately quarter-acre plot now fenced off, while the NCJCC takes over the vacant 1.3 acre parcel.

"The cemetery is outside the historic district of Nevada City. There are no ordinances in our way," Adicoff said. "In 1856 the land was zoned a Jewish cemetery and remains so to this day.

"We can't buy or rezone the property. We won't trespass on the historic section. But this land is lying fallow."

Adicoff estimates the vacant section of the cemetery could hold 500 graves — which would be sufficient for the next 75 to 100 years.

For now, bodies are flown back to families and birthplaces for burial in such places as Los Angeles and New York. The commission suggests the NCJCC attempt to work with a general cemetery and establish a Jewish section.

Adicoff called the commission's solution "unacceptable."

"We'd have to make all sorts of special provisions. Like marking off 6-foot separations between graves," he said. "Besides, why start a new Jewish cemetery when one is already zoned as such in Nevada City?"

Fromer, however, maintains the vacant area "is being preserved as part of the historic cemetery" and cannot convert into a working burial site.

"There is no zoning for new burials," Fromer said. "We are bound by our charter to operate as a historic landmark."

Adicoff disputes that reasoning. The only reason the commission is denying the NCJCC's request is because "they would lose control," Adicoff said.

"We're grateful to the Magnes and the commission that they took care of this land during an interim period," he said.

"But now we're ready to take over."