Dead trees in the Jewish section of Sunrise Cemetery in Vallejo. (Photo/Shulamit Rosner)
Dead trees in the Jewish section of Sunrise Cemetery in Vallejo. (Photo/Shulamit Rosner)

Jewish section of Vallejo cemetery in sorry state, say disappointed locals

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Shulamit Rosner put a substantial down payment on a plot in the Jewish section of Sunrise Memorial Cemetery in Vallejo, but a recent visit to the site left her unsure she really wants it to be her final resting place.

This leaves Rosner, an observant Jew who wants to be buried according to Jewish law, in a quandary.

Sunrise is the only officially sanctioned Jewish section of a cemetery in Solano County, according to Chabad of Solano County Rabbi Chaim Zaklos. There are Jews buried in other cemeteries, including in the “nonkosher” areas of Sunrise before the Jewish section was established. There are no outright Jewish cemeteries in the county.

But like much of the cemetery incorporated in 1879, the Jewish area at Sunrise Memorial is not in great shape, and hasn’t been for some years.

“When I moved to Vallejo 5½ years ago, I had the feeling this was going to be my last port of call,” said Rosner, who recently turned 75. “I bought a house and I bought a burial plot in the Jewish section of Sunrise.”

She said she did this with “a certain urgency” so her children wouldn’t have to contend with such matters after she dies. She met with a funeral director, arranged the service and interment — and only then headed to the cemetery.

“I was appalled,” Rosner recalled. “The trees bordering the west side of our section were dry as a bone, certainly a fire hazard, but more than that, a tremendous disrespect to our deceased and their families.”

Jewish law requires a Jewish section in a secular cemetery to be demarcated in some way, often with trees or other foliage.

It’s not manicured. It’s not green. You almost need an all-terrain vehicle to get around there.

Sunrise’s Jewish section was established more than 50 years ago in a partnership between Congregation B’nai Israel in Vallejo and Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, according to former B’nai Israel president Mary Schwartz. A granite monument welcomes visitors to the Jewish section, where the oldest headstone seems to be from the 1960s, Schwartz said. An estimated 150 people are buried in the section.

“Over the years, as Sunrise’s endowment dwindled and costs rose, grounds upkeep suffered and the business side fell into disorganization,” Buck Kamphausen said in a 2007 Vallejo Times-Herald article. He owned the cemetery at the time, selling it nearly a decade later.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Beth Shalom established its own Jewish section in the St. Helena Public Cemetery, which is in Napa County about an hour away from Vallejo.

“I’ve heard Sunrise is in disrepair, and probably there was no traction in getting it fixed,” said Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum of Chabad of Napa Valley.

Cheryl Gewing, B’nai Israel board president, explained that Sunrise is “registered as a nonprofit entity, not an endowment care cemetery,” and state requirements for upkeep do not apply to nonprofit cemeteries.

Chris Cowan, a pastor and licensed funeral director, manages Sunrise for Hillcrest Baptist Church, which purchased the cemetery in 2016. He said he’s happy to accommodate whatever the Jewish community wants to do to fix the problems caused by the drought and a lack of irrigation.

“Unfortunately, the trees in that section have died, and I just got an estimate to remove them,” Cowan said. He plans to share the information with Honore McIlhattan, chair of B’nai Israel’s cemetery committee, which is working on a plot map. “She mentioned building a wall around it, and I’m fine with that. I just hired full-time landscapers, but the drought really hurt us. But I’m totally open to anything the synagogue wants to do. I’m flexible.”

Rosner is not the only Sunrise client to take issue with the condition at the cemetery.

Shulamit Rosner thought it would be her final resting place, but after the seeing it in person, she's having doubts about the Vallejo Jewish cemetery. (Photo/Rachel Raskin-Zrihen)
Shulamit Rosner thought it would be her final resting place, but after the seeing it in person, she’s having doubts about the Vallejo Jewish cemetery. (Photo/Rachel Raskin-Zrihen)

Glen Bond of New Jersey was not happy about what he saw recently when, on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit, he visited the graves of his parents, Don and Fran, and his brother Bruce.

“On one hand, when you buy a plot there, you do acknowledge it’s dried out, the ground is cracked and uneven,” he said. “The few trees there look like they are ready to exit stage left, so to speak.”

The site “is not manicured, it’s not green,” he added. “You almost need an all-terrain vehicle to get around there. I called the office and complained, and they were willing to do what [they could]. We’re going to straighten out my mother’s headstone. Anything that can be done to make it better would be wonderful.”

Bond did say that cemetery officials he spoke with were receptive to making improvements, and synagogue officials say the same.

“In discussions with the pastor of the church, we learned that they are now barely making enough, with four to five burials a month, to pay for contracting services like opening and closing the cemetery daily, opening and closing graves and basic maintenance,” Gewing said. “A former irrigation system was fed by underground wells, which have dried up. A new system [connected to city water] would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and seems impractical in our current climate.”

One possible solution under discussion includes removing the dead trees surrounding the Jewish section and replacing them with drought-tolerant landscaping, Gewing said.

Dozens of Jews from the Napa area are buried at Sunrise, and there are still a few available plots, factors that Gewing hopes will encourage the Napa Jewish community’s continued involvement.

Zaklos of Chabad said getting the cemetery back in shape is important to the Jewish community. “We are obligated to show respect to those who have lived before us,” he said. “It highlights the fact that the soul lives on.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.