Strong rains cast light on Confederate Jewish cemetery

richmond, va. (ap) | Affixed to an imposing granite monument in Hebrew Cemetery that marks the burial plot for a long-deceased family is a bright orange-and-black sign: Keep Out.

The warning was posted at the back of the historic cemetery, which also recently had been cordoned off with yellow plastic tape to keep people away from the area where heavy rains recently washed part of the property down a steep hill.

The severe erosion has forced workers to move vaults to safer ground in the eight-acre cemetery, which dates to the early 1800s and contains the remains of at least 30 Jewish Confederate soldiers.

“We’re in the process of finding the nearest relatives. Some [graves] are very old — so that’s difficult,” said Mitchell Gordon, executive director of Congregation Beth Ahabah, the downtown Richmond synagogue that operates the cemetery. “We’ve been contacted by remaining relatives on how to get in touch with the families.”

Workers have moved 15 graves dating from the 1920s through the 1940s to a newer part of the cemetery, he said.

“Everyone has been very understanding. We’ve even got several calls from Civil War societies,” though none of the Confederate graves were disturbed.

This summer’s heavy rains — including more than a foot of precipitation that fell within a few hours on Aug. 30 when remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston hit Richmond — loosened the earth, breaking apart blacktop walkways and sending the north edge of the cemetery down toward the railroad tracks below.

Throughout the grounds, granite and marble slabs and towers carry inscriptions in Hebrew and English, and many are grouped by families with names such as Schwarzchild, Millhiser, Bloomberg and Strauss.

The Confederate section contains remains of Jewish soldiers who died in or near Richmond during the Civil War; a few are buried elsewhere on the grounds. Congregation officials and some historians identify it as the first and only Jewish military cemetery outside Israel.

A bronze plaque on a memorial marker lists the names of the soldiers with a Star of David and the inscription: “To the glory of God and in memory of the Hebrew Confederate soldiers resting in this hallowed spot.”

The dead represented “a cross-section of Southern states,” including Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, said John Coski, librarian with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

“It’s very much what you would find in national cemeteries,” where Civil War soldiers were buried after dying in battle or from disease, many far from home.