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Historic Jewish Cemetery Gets Facelift Ahead Of Bicentennial

Chestnut St Cemetery 2.jpg
Bill Rinehart
Crews work on renovations at the Chestnut Street Cemetery in the West End. It's the first and oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies is tucked away in the West End's Betts-Longworth Historic District. It's small, unassuming and easy to miss along Central Avenue. That's changing now with renovation and restoration work underway ahead of this year's Jewish bicentennial.

"We are doing some improvements to the existing infrastructure, including restoring the brick wall; replacing the chain-link fence with a steel fence in the wrought-iron fashion that will match the existing gate; and then we are doing work restoring the monuments - mostly just cleaning them," says David Harris, executive director of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati.

The Chestnut Street Cemetery opened in 1821 when a man named Benjamin Leib contacted the town's small community of Jews and asked to be buried in consecrated Jewish ground. That date is hence considered the start of Jewish communal life in Cincinnati. There are 85 people known to be buried within the cemetery's walls.

A tree and overgrown shrubberies have been torn out to make way for a new "educational" plaza at the corner of Central Ave. and 12th St.

"It will have signage talking about the early Jewish settlers who founded the cemetery and the first Jewish congregation west of the Alleghenies, as well as information about the community in general as well as the West End neighborhood," Harris says.

That includes a recently approved Ohio Historical Marker.

Chestnut St Cemetery 1.jpg
Bill Rinehart
A new wrought-iron style fence will replace the former chain-link fencing.

With the ongoing growth surrounding the nearby TQL Stadium, Harris says the cemetery is expected to see more visitors and passersby.

"We do hope this becomes a destination for school groups and others interested in the history of Cincinnati," Harris explains. "The Jewish community has been here for 200 years and has played a significant role in the development of the city in addition to the accomplishments of the Jewish community itself."

The cemetery closed in 1849 following the cholera epidemic. A researcher working to translate the headstones as part of the restoration work discovered many referencing "that the person died 'in the hour of the plague,' " notes Harris.

"We have been commenting on how odd it is that we are celebrating the 200th anniversary at a time when we are hoping to be coming toward the end of this other pandemic that we're all suffering through."

The renovation work is expected to be completed by early September. A re-dedication ceremony - which also serves as the launch of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial - is scheduled for Sept. 26.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Prior to joining Cincinnati Public Radio, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She enjoys snow skiing, soccer and dogs.