In the fall of 1983, Mike Pechner made his way to the town of Jackson in the heart of Gold Country. His mission? To oversee the cleanup of the Pioneer Jewish Cemetery, established in 1857.
The day sticks in his memory for a more personal reason, though. It’s when he met his future wife, Eleanor, who was part of a group of about 50 people from the Jewish Community Federation’s Young Adult Division who came to help clean the cemetery. They met while she was cleaning a headstone.
Pechner, 75, said it was “love at first fright.” The two got married a year later and now live in Cordelia, in Solano County.
Last month, 38 years after that first visit, Pechner made his way back to the cemetery after reaching out in a J. letter to the editor and inviting others to join him.
Upon arrival, Pechner saw that the cemetery was not in good condition. A lot of old, dead grass and mulch had accumulated.
“I can tell it hasn’t been cleared in years,” said Pechner, a fifth-generation Californian.
He and five other friends, all in their late 60s and early 70s, used shovels, hoes and a weed trimmer to clear the land, working from morning until early afternoon. Pechner said they cleared most of the space,
The work serendipitously attracted two passers-by, a Jewish man named Gutter and his girlfriend Erica, who pitched in and helped the group.
The Jewish cemetery in Jackson has 32 gravestones on a plot of land approximately the size of a tennis court. It is part of a set of seven Jewish cemeteries in the Gold Rush region — often referred to as the Mother Lode — that stretch across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Jews were part of the Gold Rush migration that occurred in the late 1840s. Many set up clothing and tobacco businesses in the area, then eventually made their way to metropolitan centers as the Gold Rush faded out in the late 1890s. While no synagogues in the region remain, the seven cemeteries are overseen by the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks.
Pechner sees the work as “something we [Jews] need to do.” He already has a follow-up trip planned in September. “It’s a mitzvah,” he said. “It is part of our heritage. It is part of our history.”
To reach Pechner for the next trip, email him at [email protected] or call (707) 322-2584 or (707) 864-6799.