New life for old Orthodox cemetery in Oakland

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Holocaust survivor Stan Felson stands at the highest point of an East Oakland hilltop, shading his eyes on an exceptionally clear day as he looks out toward the bay and the San Francisco skyline.

But Felson didn’t come for the views. The reason he’s here is right at his feet: the Home of Peace, a 113-year-old Orthodox cemetery — among the Bay Area’s oldest Jewish cemeteries and its only stand-alone Orthodox one. Felson funded and drove its much-needed renovation over the past year.

Stan Felson stands in front of the restored fountain. photos/emma silvers

A longtime member of Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, which owns Home of Peace, the retired developer turned his attention to the cemetery two years ago after his beloved Pearl, his wife of 58 years, was buried there. But Jewish cemeteries are important to Felson for other, more historically rooted reasons as well.

“During the Holocaust, we know that 6 million Jews were killed, but also all the cemeteries were destroyed,” says Felson, born Zalman Feigelson.

A native of Glubbock, near Vilna, Poland, he lost all but one immediate family member in the Holocaust. At 88, Felson has a razor-sharp mind for dates and figures. Yet despite trips back to his homeland, he hasn’t been able to locate his family’s remains.

“It was that, and with my wife being here, and seeing that things were neglected,” he gestures at the hillside land around him. “It was an honor for me to do something of this importance.”

Felson called upon fellow congregants Leslie Klonoff and Julie Ovadia for assistance. The pair teamed with Beth Jacob administrator Kathy Hollander to organize the project and hire a construction crew.

Felson, who used his background in property development to lead much of the renovation, wanted to focus on making Home of Peace, located on three-quarters of a block in a somewhat rough part of Oakland, a beautiful place for loved ones to visit. Now, when they do — a custom for the High Holy Days — they’ll find a cemetery transformed.

Headstones are now straight and clean.

Headstones that were leaning have been righted, with base rock installed to prevent erosion caused by water draining down the hill. Broken stone and concrete were removed or repaired. Almost all of the cemetery’s retaining walls were repaired or replaced and new fences built. Some of the land was regraded to allow the addition of new gravesites. A new hand-washing station was installed near the cemetery’s exit.

But the biggest change is impossible to miss: Front and center at the entrance, an aging and dilapidated fountain has been restored to an approximation of the gleaming white structure as it was in 1926. Now the soothing sound of trickling water helps to drown out street noise from the surrounding area, near the intersection of High Street and Fairfax Avenue.

Though Jews of different backgrounds are buried here, all burials take place according to Orthodox Jewish law.

“One of the really complex, sensitive issues about dying and burial is that when we die, our bodies and graves wind up being attended to by people 100 years later, who never met us, who may have very different social mores, a different value system,” says Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Judah Dardik.

“When you look at traditions like prohibiting cremation, or the taharah [the ritual washing of the body] … you know this is the way we’ve been buried for thousands of years,” he added. Following Orthodox burial procedures is “a way of honoring that, sticking to these standards.”

The renovation team found another way to honor their predecessors. When the fountain was built in 1926, names of prominent Jewish community members were inscribed on mosaic tiles around the base. The team decided to leave the delicate tiles untouched.

As Felson walks around the fountain, pointing out the name of an old friend’s relative, he says he’s pleased with this decision. Learning to honor the past while living actively in the present has become a common refrain for him.

Felson spent a year and a half in the Vilna ghetto before joining a partisan resistance group associated with the White Russian (Soviet) army in November 1942, at age 20 — a decision he says saved his life. After seven months with the partisans, he went back to the ghetto to contact his family. “That was the most dangerous day of my life,” he says.

Original tiles on the fountain were preserved.

His younger brother, Don, joined him in the partisan movement, and the two left believing the rest of the family had adequate protection, although it turned out that they did not.

In 1946, with the help of an aunt who lived in San Francisco, the brothers moved to the U.S. While attending a wedding in December 1950 in Oregon, Stan met Pearl (the groom’s sister), and proposed a week later. The two were married in February 1951, had three sons and lived in Seattle for seven years before relocating the family to Hayward in 1958.

There, the Felson brothers made a name for themselves as Felson Builders, one of southern Alameda County’s biggest developers. Together they saw to completion more than 2,000 apartments in Hayward, San Leandro, Fremont and other communities, as well as hundreds of condominiums, single-family homes and commercial buildings. Don died in 2002.

“Stan’s just been a fixture in the community for as long as anyone can remember, at this point,” says Hollander, adding that she was grateful for, but not surprised by, Felson’s generosity and leadership on the cemetery renovation.

“It’s not the kind of thing where people necessarily jump up every day and say, ‘Hey I want to work for the cemetery,’ ” says Dardik. “It takes a person who really sees the long-term vision, sees how completely fundamental the cemetery is to how a community operates. So I was thrilled that Stan stepped up.”

“When it comes to something like this project, there are so many people who could sit back and say ‘This needs to get done, this needs to get done,’ ” adds Klonoff. “Stan actually said, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’ ”

He’s not showing any signs of slowing down, either. Next on the to-do list: additional landscaping, removal of select trees, a directory of plots, further repairs to the retaining wall and the installation of benches for visitors. (The congregation will need additional donations to complete the process; anyone interested in helping is encouraged to contact the Beth Jacob office.)

Today, though, Felson is content to stand as he lingers near the plot where his wife was buried in 2009. “I got a double plot,” he says quietly, gesturing at the space beside her.

Klonoff puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Yes, Stan, but you’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” she says.

Felson nods and chuckles, readjusting the baseball cap protecting his head from the sun. And then he’s off, moving slowly down the hillside to another part of the cemetery, eager to see what other work still needs to be done.

Home of Peace cemetery, 4712 Fairfax Ave., Oakland. For information, contact Beth Jacob Congregation at (510) 482-1147.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.