To say that 2020 threw us all a curveball would be the understatement of the century.
While I originally had grand plans to undertake my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, I found myself home in Australia with my family in the midst of the global health crisis caused by COVID-19. The time difference meant that visiting hospitals, being in group sessions, and scheduling individual supervision would be close to impossible.
Nonetheless, if we have learned any lesson from the past year, it is never to waste a crisis, and I was fortunate to be able to spend this academic year instead working with the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati (JCGE).
With this organization, I have been helping to undertake research projects, particularly an effort to translate headstones so that the relevant information may be available to the public, as JCGE looks to rededicate their soon-to-be refurbished Chestnut Street premises in May 2021.
It has been enjoyable to learn how the cemetery fits into the broader Cincinnati Jewish community. I have explored how the cemetery got started and subsequently expanded, as well as how the synagogues relate to and use the various locations of the cemetery network today. For example, the cemetery was established on Chestnut Street in 1821, after there was no burial plot to bury a man by the name of Benjamin Lieb, who, although he did not make himself known as a Jew, requested to be buried in a Jewish manner. There are now locations all over Cincinnati, with various synagogues owning sections for their members, such as Northern Hills at Covedale, and Adath Israel at Price Hill.
My work has also challenged my Hebrew knowledge, as I have had to learn a whole new set of vocabulary and abbreviations related specifically to Jewish burial and headstones. I am learning to decipher new fonts found in the carvings, and to put the pieces of the puzzle together to get an accurate and holistic picture of what I am reading.
What has been most important to me, however, are the human stories behind the Hebrew words on the stones. The Jewish cemeteries in Cincinnati are full of history, but behind every name and date lies a human life; the stories are those of great, respected rabbis; mothers lost in childbirth; children gone far too young; those who were fortunate to live to old age; couples who have made their final resting place together; and so many more fascinating life stories.
I am also occasionally able to help Cincinnati residents bring to light previously unknown information about their ancestors. Being able to provide them with details and new connections to deceased family members is deeply gratifying.
Finally, I was surprised to discover the reason that the Chestnut Street Cemetery became full and then was forced to expand: a cholera epidemic that rolled in waves throughout the late 1840s. Naturally, this caused me to reflect on our own situation today. The effects of cholera were devastating, as they are for coronavirus. Seeing sadness on such a scale, it is easy to become desensitized to the sheer numbers, to the point where they seem beyond belief. Yet the history I learned during my fellowship has helped me to process the present and understand that, even across the generations, we are connected to and responsible for one another.
In a tradition that so deeply values mourning and memory, my experience with the JCGC has ultimately been a reminder in our own times—sometimes stark, sometimes gentle—that life has always had its ups and downs. When we eventually reach the other side of this treacherous journey, however, we might dedicate the next chapter to the memory of those who were not able to complete it, and live in ways that are worthy of their memory. Working with the JCGC has taught me that their names are not historical footnotes but lampposts that can illuminate the path forward.
I am grateful to my supervisor, David Harris, and to Rabbis Julie Schwartz and Jan Katzew, for working to make this opportunity happen.
I look forward to the day when we are all through to the other side of our own epidemic, when we may reflect together on the lessons of our past and write the next chapter of our Cincinnati Jewish story.
Eliza McCarroll is a fourth-year rabbinical students who is serving as the TJF fellow at the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati during the 2020–2021 academic year.