A Fairfield Museum researcher examines defaced headstones in the Jewish cemetery

FAIRFIELD — An employee of the Fairfield Museum and History Center is studying desecrated headstones at a local Jewish cemetery as part of a personal project, and he says he hopes to repair the damage.

The Shaare Torah Adath Israel Congregation Cemetery is just on the border of Fairfield and Bridgeport on Black Rock Turnpike. Although there are hundreds of graves at the site, Alec Lurie said he noticed disturbing vandalism when he visited.

Some of the tombstones, many of which are over 100 years old, have a ceramic photograph inlaid on the stone. Of these, Lurie noticed that some had clearly been intentionally damaged, with the faces of the dead chipped away.

“If you look at pictures of some of these stones from around the 1940s, the face is just hollowed out,” he said, noting that there are 11 graves he found that have been defaced. “It’s pretty clear that it was intentional. Looks like someone picked up a tool for that.

Lurie, an assistant curator at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, said he started looking at vandalism as a project outside of his job. He said he lives in the area and is interested in historic cemeteries, adding that the Shaare Torah Adath Israel Cemetery stood out for him.

“The headstones there are quite unusual in that they have these ceramic portraits somehow embedded in some of the stones of the people buried,” he said. “Some of these stones have pictures that date back as far as the 1910s.”

Lurie wonders if the damage was done with anti-Semitic intent.

Lurie said the damage is from before 2015, as an online database of headstones and photos shows the damage existed in that year when these entries were made. He said he also checked vandalism news databases.

The Fairfield Police Department did not respond to inquiries about whether vandalism had ever been reported at the cemetery.

When he came across the damaged memorials, Lurie said he felt like he had to consider who these people were. He said he was able to trace at least three of them to their home countries, noting that most of them were Eastern European Jews.

“I was able to get a lot of information about where they lived and their professions,” he said. “I was even able to find additional photos of them that could potentially be used to restore some of these graves.”

An example of a damaged headstone is that of Rose Abeson, who was born in modern Ukraine in 1876 but moved to the United States in 1914.

Abeson moved to Bridgeport with her husband and their children. They eventually ran their own grocery store and production business, and owned a house on Madison Avenue.

Lurie said he wrote an article outlining the history of the cemetery and discussing the damaged headstones. He traced the lives of three of these people and wrote mini-biographies about them.

“There might be more interesting stories among the eight graves (with damage) that I could find,” he said. “It’s fertile ground for more research.”

Congregation Adath Israel, which met in what is now the Apostolic Worship Center on East Washington Street in Bridgeport, is no longer active. Neither Lurie nor Hearst Connecticut Media have been able to contact the entity that currently owns the cemetery.

Notably, there are graves there as recently as this year.

Lurie said he wanted to find some of the descendants of people whose headstones were damaged, as well as other stakeholders. He said some of the damage can be repaired because he was able to find photos of some people.

“It would be a fairly simple task, if you knew where to look, to just take these photos and create a new ceramic portrait for these stones,” he said.

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About Bobby F. Lopez

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