Finding Jerusalem's lost souls
Schneur Simha, the former deputy director general of the Education Ministry, was in the City of David outside the Old City of Jerusalem last July when he realized he was close to a long lost relative . While drinking coffee with members of the Elad organization, which operates the site, he related that his grandfather, after whom he had been named, was buried on the Mount of Olives opposite where they were sitting but that he had never seen his grave since the area was lost after the War of Independence.
Simha was not aware that Elad was in the midst of a vast project to map the graves on the mountain.
The group finished drinking coffee and went across to the slopes of the mount to search for the grave. The only clues they had were notes from the book of graves held by the Parnases, a family of Jerusalem undertakers. The book records the burials on the Mount of Olives over the past three centuries.
"The VIP section - to the right of Eliahu Shama, and below Yitzhak Alsheikh," a passage in the book read, referring to Simha's grave.
The group began searching for the graves of those mentioned on the page, in the section of the cemetery that had been almost completely destroyed during the time that the Jordanians ruled East Jerusalem.
First they found a tombstone with Eliahu Shama's name and then that of Alsheikh, and finally, just as the twilight was fading, one of the Elad people turned over a fragment of a tombstone at the edge of the section, and on it was inscribed "Senior Simha."
"It is impossible to describe the excitement when you discover a tombstone on which your name is engraved," said the grandson.
The Elad members say that immediately after that, a number of yeshiva students were found who helped to form the minyan (quorum) that was required for the first Kaddish to be recited over Simha's grandfather's grave in 60 years.
Finding the grave was made possible thanks to an innovative project mapping and restoring the cemetery on the Mount of Olives undertaken by the association. So far they have located 20,000 graves.
According to estimates, there are some 120,000 Jews buried in the giant cemetery. The oldest graves date back to the First Temple era but new graves are added every week.
The cemetery has become an almost inaccessible labyrinth of tombstones, gravestone shards and gravesites. There are several reasons for this.
First, the topography of the mountain makes it impossible to dig a straight grid as in other cemeteries. In addition, during the time of the Jordanian government, from 1948 to 1967, some of the graves were destroyed to make way for a gas station and to widen the road leading to Jericho; they are currently being restored but it will take years for the piles of gravestones to be sorted out and returned to their original locations.
During the years of Jordanian rule, many families - like the Simha family - lost touch with the site and the grave. The association is being assisted by two historical documents that documented the gravesites. The first is "Helkat Mehokek", written in 1900 by Asher Leib Brisk. He punctiliously documented all the inscriptions and locations of the tombstones in the cemetery in that year. With the aid of his book, the grave was found, for example, of the famous 17th century Rabbi Haim Abulafia.
The second document is the Parnas family's book of notes, but one needs a flair for detective work in order to decipher what is written there.
This, for example, is how the burial place of Rivka Bucahri, who died in 1939, is described: "Opposite Pirha Sasson, from the northern side ... on the left, to the feet of Eliyahu Kurditoff."
The project began by steam-cleaning almost all of the tombstones to make the epitaphs more legible. After, investigators armed with detailed aerial maps were sent there to document every grave in detail.
Every grave was given a catalog number, which was put onto software that processed the information into a Geographic Information System database. Thus, by combining footwork with high tech, the graves were mapped one by one.
As far as is known, no similar project has ever been undertaken in any other cemetery in the world. The project began two years ago and has so far cost NIS 4.5 million; the technical side is being handled by the Teldor company.
When the graves are located, the information is fed into a Web site (www.mountofolives.co.il) which provides data not only about the grave's location but also the possibility of setting up a virtual memorial to the person buried there.
Shilo Eldar, the leader of the project, calls it "the Facebook of the dead." The site also provides various relevant services such as email messages to remind people about the yahrzeit [death anniversary], possibilities of restoring the tombstone, and even finding additional men to participate in a minyan.
The site also provides a detailed map and explanation of the route to the grave.