A trip for Northeast Philadelphia seniors to pay respects to the long departed

Posted: November 03, 2011

After 30 minutes of looking, Elaine Breyer was ready to give up.

"Where are you, Joanie?" said Breyer, 81, resting on a stone bench at Mount Sharon Cemetery in Springfield, Delaware County.

She had walked row after row of arched gray monuments and couldn't find the grave of her sister.

It had been 10 years since Breyer had visited the grave site of her sibling, who had died of renal failure at age 27. Breyer was visiting the cemetery with a group of seniors who were on a similar mission.

For years, they had been unable to pay their respects to deceased loved ones buried at cemeteries far from their homes in Northeast Philadelphia, so the Raymond and Miriam Klein Branch of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers in the Northeast made it possible.

Shelley Geltzer, adult-services program director at the center, organized a trip to three Jewish cemeteries in the western suburbs. The seats on the van were quickly snapped up.

"Maybe they don't drive anymore, or their children don't live in the area and can't take them," Geltzer said.

On Friday, she boarded the van with two prayer books and a Tupperware bowl full of stones. It is a tradition for Jews to leave a small stone on a headstone to show that someone had visited the grave and that the deceased had been loved. The prayer books contain the Kaddish, a prayer said at Jewish rituals of mourning.

At 10 a.m., the group set out for Mount Jacob Cemetery in Darby Township, Mount Lebanon in Collingdale, and Mount Sharon, the last on the schedule.

Joan Keyser, 79, and Charlotte Gerber got off at the first stop.

Gerber, who is on the advisory board of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, was there to visit the grave sites of her maternal grandparents. Jennie and Morris Trubin had operated a laundry in South Philadelphia and had lived in the back of the building, Gerber said. Samuel Fleisher, her paternal grandfather, had been a tailor who worked out of his home in Northern Liberties. His wife, Lena, was blind, but "that didn't stop her," Gerber said.

"I haven't been to this cemetery in 30 years," she said after finding their grave sites. "I feel bad I haven't been here."

A few minutes later, Keyser was having trouble finding the grave sites of her family members until a caretaker asked whom she was looking for.

"Keyser's over there," he said, "and Kauffman is here."

Sheldon Kauffman was a cousin who died in 1959 at age 20.

Keyser gently placed stones on the headstones of her family and got back on the bus. The group then rode to Mount Lebanon, where Marsha Warhoftig found her parents' grave in less than a minute.

"I work quickly," she said. Much of her family is buried at the cemetery, including parents Benjamin and Sarah Rosner and several of Warhoftig's eight siblings.

Warhoftig, 85, bought a space for herself at another cemetery - Mount Sharon - just in case.

"I was concerned we'd run out of space" in the family plot, Warhoftig said.

Not far away, Elsie Sachs, 88, a retired pharmacist, pushed aside the spindly tree branches hanging over her relatives' graves to secure a spot to stand and look at the headstones of her husband, father, and two brothers.

Her father, Zigmund Silverman, had helped organize a savings and loan and was rewarded for his efforts with 15 graves at the cemetery.

Sachs and her daughter Nina Nemeroff, 62, pulled out the Kaddish prayer and said it aloud.

"May he who established peace in the heavens grant peace unto us and unto all Israel, and say Amen," they recited.

Then, the group rode to the last stop. Stanley and Barbara Gittelman got off with Breyer.

The Gittelmans paid their respects to his parents, Laizar and Esther Gittelman. Laizar had been a truck driver who later got a job in Atlantic City ensuring that kosher kitchens were obeying kosher laws. His wife had run a dairy store in South Philadelphia.

Stanley Gittelman used to visit the cemetery regularly with his sister Gloria Kagan, the mother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, but the visits decreased when his sister became ill and later passed away.

"We found them," Stanley Gittelman said when he got back on the bus.

In Section M, Breyer was still searching.

Then, she saw the marker: "Joan M. Gershenfeld. Sept. 3, 1962. 27 years."

Breyer wept.

"I don't even have a stone," she said.

She looked around on the grass and eventually found one. She placed it on top of the headstone to show that someone had been there to visit her sister, who had been the mother of two.

"Her son is a rabbi in Israel, her daughter a social worker who lives in Harleysville," Breyer said. "I'm happy I found her."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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