Jewish Heritage Europe

Cleaning up a Jewish cemetery: Performing a mitzvah, but questioning the process

Michele Migliori in the Kozma utca Jewish cemetery, Budapest. Photo: Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery

When JHE contributor Michele Migliori signed on to help clean up a neglected Jewish cemetery in a remote part of Hungary, he never imagined he’d be taking part in an activity that, while a valuable initiative, had been forbidden by the cemetery’s owner and during which some participants — involuntarily – took actions that were contrary to Jewish practice (and other standards), so much so that Hungary’s main Jewish umbrella group said it filed a complaint with police.

In this personal essay, Michele writes about the experience – and about troubling questions that can crop up even when performing a mitzvah.


Cleaning up a Jewish cemetery: Performing a mitzvah, but questioning the process

By Michele Migliori

October 25, 2020

On September 18-19 I took part in a Jewish cemetery clean-up in Tállya, a wine-making village in northeastern Hungary. Located in the middle of vineyards, the one-hectare walled cemetery looked beautiful but neglected and overgrown. The clean-up was the first ever organized by the Budapest-based photographer and journalist, Bence Illyés. Illyés, 30, is not himself Jewish but has a deep interest in Judaism and Jewish heritage: He holds a BA from the Jewish University of Budapest and also studied at the Paideia European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. And his photographic work over the past few years has focused on Hasidic pilgrimages to the graves of so-called “Wonder Rabbis” in eastern Hungary.

Illyés spent all summer organizing the clean-up and raising money via an online platform to pay for a round trip bus to bring volunteers from Budapest, as well as for meals, accommodation, tools, etc. He raised around €2,000, and about 20 volunteers took part. Most, like me, came from Budapest and had no Jewish background. “As a Christian, it is also important for me to preserve the memory of the traditional Jewish world for the society as a whole,” Illyés wrote in an op-ed in The Forward titled “A Jewish cemetery in Hungary, restored by a Christian.” 

He added, “I’m sure we can learn a lot from the values and way of life that symbolized the traditional Jewish folk living in Tállya.”

Volunteers during the cemetery clean up at Tállya

Illyés organized the clean-up over four days that coincided with a popular food and music festival in the village. It also coincided with a weekend – the weekend that this year saw Rosh HaShana as well as Shabbat, days according to Halacha, or Jewish law, when Jews are not permitted to work and should not enter cemeteries. Though I myself am not Jewish, I found the timing strange –and questionable. Afterward, Illyés explained it to me this way: “Most of the participating volunteers were not Jewish, and the Halacha does not apply to them; and our Jewish volunteers had no problem doing such a mitzvah, like saving a Jewish cemetery, during the holidays.”

Be that as it may, this was only one of the issues that cropped up during the clean-up – and that made me uncomfortable. Instead of removing the cleared vegetation from the cemetery, for example, volunteers set fires inside the cemetery to burn it; the fires blazed through dry grass, scorching some of the tombstones. Burning vegetation like this is considered by cemetery preservationists as a no-no – it “should be avoided at all costs,” states one manual on the care and conservation of graveyards. 

Burning cut vegetation in the Tallya Jewish cemetery

What’s more, I found out later that it also appeared to violate local ordinances about  burning vegetation. When I asked Rabbi Zoltan Radnóti about it, he was blunt: “Lighting a fire in the cemetery is not allowed.” Radnóti is the chairman of the Rabbinical Council of MAZSIHISZ, the main Jewish umbrella organization in Hungary, linking Neolog (moderate reform) congregations, and the owner of the Tállya cemetery.

In fact, officials from MAZSIHISZ and from MAZSÖK, the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation, established in 1997 by the Hungarian government, whose main aim is the protection of Jewish monuments and heritage, told me they had asked Illyés not to hold the clean-up on Rosh Hashana: “If Mr. Illyés had done the work at a different time, everyone would have supported it to the maximum,” MAZSÖK president György Szabó told me. MAZSÖK launches every year a tender for the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in the countryside, which is open to municipalities. Péter Tamás, the MAZSIHISZ official responsible for the Jewish cemeteries in the countryside, added “[We] did not give permission for anyone to clean up any Jewish cemetery during Jewish holidays. The office emphasized in a letter sent to the organizer of the volunteering group that during Jewish holidays no visitors are allowed to enter a Jewish cemetery and working is prohibited during those days.”

In the Jewish cemetery, Tállya, during the clean-up; burnt grass amid the gravestones

In the days following the clean-up, an intense debate about the initiative erupted on two Jewish-related Hungarian Facebook groups, and on a Hungarian-Jewish Facebook page. One thread on Facebook reached more than 100 comments, split between those who supported the initiative and those who didn’t. “I appreciate any initiative to clean up neglected Jewish cemeteries,” wrote one of the users, “but I was shocked to read that despite the request [to avoid working on those days], they worked on Jewish religious holidays […] which is offensive to the souls lying there.”

Neither MAZSÖK nor MAZSIHISZ made any official comment, but Szabó, the MAZSÖK president, stated on Facebook that a police complaint had been filed because of what happened during the clean-up in Tállya. Szabo told me that the complaint was for “vandalism and insult” (because of the fire), and because Illyés had decided to go on with the initiative despite the request from the cemetery’s owner to organize the clean-up on different days, because of the Jewish holidays. (Illyés rejected criticism and organized a second clean up in Tállya October 23-25.)

The story highlights issues that go far beyond what happened in Tállya itself and regard the relation between the owners of the cemeteries and organizers of Jewish cemetery initiatives, and their respective duties and responsibilities towards Jewish laws and practices.

There are more than 1250 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary, and MAZSIHISZ, the legal owner of most of them, has no resources to keep most of them in decent condition. But there is, to a certain extent, a movement in Hungary to help restore Jewish cemeteries, as a civic or cultural duty, as a mitzvah, or simply as a hobby; and municipalities, civic groups, and Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, and even individuals often help out to keep them in order, sometimes with government funding.

This summer and autumn, alone, for example – besides Illyés’s initiative — Christian church groups cleaned-up Jewish cemeteries in Kiskunmajsa and Körmend (these, too, took place on Saturday); the local Women’s Association cleaned-up the Jewish cemetery in Tapolca; MAZSIHISZ itself restored the cemeteries in Szabadszállás, Fülöpszállás and Solt; and this autumn the Lauder Jewish school group “Kibuci Bucik” should (COVID regulations permitting) restore a Jewish cemetery in the countryside as it does every year. Moreover, several municipalities in the countryside have applied for state-funded support from MAZSÖK for the restoration of their Jewish cemeteries.

Man prays in the well maintained Jewish cemetery in Olaszliszka, visited by pilgrims to the graves of rabbis

Meanwhile, the US-based Jewish Orthodox Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries (HFPJC) – Avoyseinu, fenced and cleaned-up some 124 Jewish cemeteries in the Hungary over the last decade, and orthodox followers of noted rabbis have helped restore and maintain the cemeteries where these rabbis are buried.

Still, in places where neither MAZSIHISZ nor local people nor international groups are involved in Jewish cemetery initiatives, the cemeteries lie abandoned and neglected. This is the case of Tállya, where MAZSIHISZ plays the role of a distant and unknown authority that has done little or nothing for the cemetery over the past decades.

I respect Bence Illyés for stepping in to pick up the slack – but, in this first attempt at organizing a clean-up, he demonstrated that there is great room for improvement.

Saying that Halacha doesn’t apply to non-Jews doesn’t mean it’s OK to ignore the position of the cemetery’s owner (or religious law) and go ahead to organize an event during Jewish holidays. Moreover, unlike some decades ago, today it is relatively easy to be in touch with a rabbi or other authority for guidance or supervision before the clean-up, in order to avoid any improper actions.

Not only that, today there are many highly valuable online guides on the restoration and clean-up of cemeteries in general and Jewish cemeteries specifically.

These include the new created by Marla Raucher Osborn in the context of her research project supported by the US Fulbright Scholar Program. Her guide is focused on western Ukraine but can be of help to any activist embarking on a first experience in Jewish cemetery restoration. The good practices demonstrated by NGOs that have worked in the field for years, such as the Matzevah Foundation in Poland, Maceva in Lithuania, Tachov TAMUS in Czech Republic, and many others can also serve as guides. On Jewish Heritage Europe we also have an extensive section dedicated to Jewish cemeteries, which also includes best practices and FAQs.

To my mind, what happened in Tállya represents a case that should be an example for everybody dealing with Jewish cemeteries-related initiatives in Europe: that is, the importance of always working with the owner, no matter how distant it might seem; following Halacha and seeking religious advice, at least during the organization of the event; and, when carrying out the work, making sure that best practices and local regulations are respected.

It’s true that in Tállya we performed a mitzvah, and the initiative was carried out in an intense spirit of good will; but I believe that doing something as important as restoring a Jewish cemetery, and therefore also restoring its memory, needs more than good will – it needs the support and knowledge of experts.

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JHE contributor Michele Migliori lives in Budapest. He completed his Master’s Degree at Budapest’s ELTE university with a thesis titled The Forgotten Emigration: European Jewish Refugees in Ecuador and Colombia. In April 2020, he wrote a lengthy JHE article on the little-known (European) Jewish heritage of Ecuador.

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NOTE: Here is a video posted by Bence Illyes about the initiative, with interviews with volunteers ; you can see the good will — but also the fires in the cemetery.