Latham, NY – What began in 2001 as a personal sense of obligation for Latham, New York resident Michael Lozman to restore the Jewish cemetery in his father’s native town of Sopotskin in Belarus, has since become a movement called the Restoration of Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries Project, involving hundreds of American college students from all religious denominations.
“The place was a travesty,” Lozman, a full-time practicing orthodontist told The Times of Israel (http://bit.ly/W25pkY) of his first visit to the cemetery. “There was something inherently wrong with sacred ground being turned into a cow pasture and dumping ground.” Abandoned since 1941, the cemetery was used as a kind of holding cell for Jews awaiting deportation to death camps in Poland.
Many of the 3,000 tombstones were co-opted by the Nazis for use in building roads. Nearly all of the remaining 90 Jewish cemeteries in Belarus were similarly neglected. Some even had sports stadiums or movie theaters built on top of them.
Recognizing the immense undertaking involved in restoring the cemeteries, Lozman determined that college students, with their unscheduled summers, would be ideal to help him complete his mission. He initially contacted administrators at Dartmouth College and persuaded them to offer the restoration project for college credit. Students would be required to learn about Eastern European Jewish history and the Holocaust for one semester, and then would help restore dilapidated cemeteries in Belarus over a three-week period in the summer, as well as tour Jewish sites in Poland.
More than a decade later, 11 groups of interfaith students from several different colleges, some 200 people in total, have come to Belarus to participate in the restoration project. About one-third of the participants are Jewish and every student, regardless of religious background, is mandated to learn the halachos pertaining to Jewish burial. Students also learn how to stencil Hebrew inscriptions for inclusion on new tombstones.
Lozman’s vision includes building an iron fence with a Star of David design around each of the vulnerable Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, as well as archiving the names of the Jewish dead. The price tag for the perimeter fence runs up to $15,000 and the students are responsible for raising the necessary funding.
Lozman has also invited in local schoolchildren and their families, as well as government and community leaders in Belarus to participate in the restorations at each site. “It’s essential we integrate into the village,” he said. “We are three generations removed from the Nazis, and almost none of the Jews in these towns returned. I want the people in these villages that used to have thriving Jewish communities to understand who we are and what we are doing.”