The ‘Atlanta Gravestone Project’: Behind the push to mark every Jewish grave

When Leon Asner died, he had no family in Atlanta, no one to purchase a gravestone at the plot where he was buried.

Still, dozens attended the January 2020 funeral for Asner, a Holocaust survivor who, at age 85, fulfilled his goal of celebrating his bar mitzvah, the official milestone for becoming a Jewish man.

Now, the community is once again working together to support Asner and other Jewish Atlantans buried in unmarked graves at cemeteries across the city.

The Hebrew Order of David, a Jewish fraternal organization with lodges in Atlanta and around the country, is leading the Atlanta Gravestone Project, which has a goal of marking all Jewish graves in Atlanta — beginning with Asner and two other men buried at Greenwood Cemetery in southwest Atlanta. The other men are Michael Aptak and William Peca, who died in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Some people are buried without a headstone because they have no kin to make arrangements, or their family can’t afford the lofty price for gravestones. Some infants who died soon after birth are buried without a marker.

“I’ve been bothered for a long time that these are just nameless graves,” said Rabbi Judith Beiner the community chaplain at Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta. “To be able to put a name over the grave and for people to come and give honor is … in a very spiritual sense, just making sure that these souls aren’t eternally alone.”

The project is especially meaningful given the significance of mourning and burial customs in the Jewish faith. Families traditionally hold a tombstone “unveiling” for their loved ones at the end of the formal period of mourning, which is typically within the first year of death.

This weekend, the Hebrew Order and several other local Jewish institutions are holding an unveiling ceremony for Aptak, Asner and Peca at Greenwood near the Workers’ Circle Arch. The service involves removing a piece of cloth from the tombstone, giving remarks and saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead.

The groups hope it will be the first of many such unveiling ceremonies. Using maps provided by Greenwood, 36 Jewish graves at the cemetery were identified as unmarked. There are also some at Arlington and Crestlawn cemeteries.

Organizers wouldn’t lay a stone on a grave without first getting permission from the family, or making every effort to reach them, said Les Kraitzick, a local Hebrew Order of David member who has been closely involved with the gravestone project. He and others were inspired by lodges in Houston that have marked 64 Jewish graves. Beiner, Rabbi Yossi New of Congregation Beth Teffilah and Dressler’s Funeral Care all stepped in to help launch the project.

“We’re moving forward slowly. It’s not an easy process,” Kraitzick said. “We’re not stopping with three.”

He estimated it took about six months to arrange for the first gravestones. The group is accepting donations to fund future burial markers.

This Sunday’s unveiling service is scheduled for 11 a.m. at Greenwood Cemetery on Cascade Circle SW, near the Workers’ Circle Arch.