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Tour leader and JCGC’s first Executive Director David Houget shares Walnut Hills history 

The unseasonably warm fall air took on a chilly bite as participants in the Walnut Hills Cemetery walking tour, hosted by Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, gathered near the administrative building. The forecast had teased rain, so many gripped umbrellas as they waited for the tour to begin. The tour was part of Cincinnati’s Jewish Bicentennial, a way to experience Cincinnati’s history by visiting notable burials and hearing about the history of the cemetery itself. 

Walnut Hills Cemetery rests on ten and a half acres of land just off Montgomery Road in Evanston. The ground was consecrated in 1850 when the site’s first occupant, Issac Fredrick, was interred. Four years later, United Jewish Cemeteries was founded by Rockdale and Wise temples with the goal of overseeing the cemetery. Eventually the organization would be responsible for maintaining and managing all of Cincinnati’s Reform Jewish cemeteries. 

It wasn’t until 2008 when an entity was formed with the aim of managing Jewish cemeteries of all denominations in Cincinnati. Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati was the first of its kind in the United States. The JCGC currently manages twenty five Jewish cemeteries in the greater Cincinnati area, consisting of about thirty five thousand graves. In total, all the JCGC cemeteries amount to sixty acres spread over seven locations. 

Walnut Hills Cemetery was designed by the same man responsible for the design of Spring Grove Cemetery, Adolph Strauch. Born in Prussia, Strauch met Cincinnati native Robert Bowler and ultimately came to Cincinnati to design Mount Storm Park in Clifton, which was, at the time, Bowler’s private estate. Strauch also designed some Cincinnati parks, such as Eden Park, Burnet Woods and Lincoln Park.

Since the tour took place on October 30th, David Hoguet, former JCGC Executive Director and tour leader, found it fitting to share with the group Walnut Hills’ only ghost story. In 1892, the cemetery superintendent and a colleague were sleeping in the chapel building which is no longer standing. They were assigned to keep watch over a body that was in the receiving vault adjoining the chapel. The two heard the sound of moaning and some other noises and grabbed their guns to investigate the grounds surrounding the chapel. They found nothing and returned to their posts. The moaning occurred again and again and the two investigated and found no disturbances outside the chapel. After checking on the body which, fortunately, had not moved, the two decided to play it safe and spend the rest of their night outside the chapel. Aside from this incident, the occupants of Walnut Hills have peacefully remained in their locations since the founding of the cemetery. 

The cemetery is home to many of Cincinnati’s most famous residents, including Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Wise, the founder of The American Israelite, Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, profoundly shaped Jewish life in the United States and especially in Cincinnati. His grave is marked with a large obelisk, the largest in the cemetery. 

Walnut Hills Cemetery walking tour highlights Cincy history through its famous occupants 

Isaac Mayer Wise’s memorial obelisk 

Wise is buried next to Rabbi Max Lilienthal, who served at K.K. Bene Israel from 1854 until his death in 1882. Lilienthal left his home country of Germany and began work as a rabbi in New York City, where he also opened a Jewish school. He moved to Cincinnati to serve as an editor at The American Israelite. Wise and Lilienthal were such close friends that they purchased their burial plots on the same day to ensure that they would be interred next to each other. 

Droplets of rain sprinkled onto the tombstones as the tour wound its way through rows of graves. Nelson Glueck, former HUC president and famed archaeologist and his wife, Dr. Helen Glueck rest near a hill in the cemetery. One of Gluecks’ most notable excavations, that of Khirbet et-Tannur, is highlighted at the Cincinnati Art Museum where the Nabataean shrine as well as many other architectural features of the site are on display. Glueck was responsible for admitting Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by a seminary, to Hebrew Union College in the mid sixties. He would pass away in 1971,  just a year before her ordination.

Not surprisingly, HUC is highly represented in the cemetery, with the founder himself as well as presidents, professors, and students interred there. Julia Ettlinger, the first female student ever admitted to HUC is buried at Walnut Hills. She was eleven years old when she matriculated into what would be the inaugural class at the College in 1875.  Dr. Julian Morgenstern is also interred at Walnut Hills. Morgenstern was the first HUC alumni to become president of the school. He also worked with the US State Department to bring German refugee students to HUC prior to World War II. One of the scholars saved from the Holocaust by Morgenstern was Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted scholar who also taught at HUC. Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, HUC professor and founder of the American Jewish Archives is also buried here. 

Walnut Hills is populated by numerous war veterans who fought in a number of American wars. David Urbansky a Prussian immigrant, has a headstone at the cemetery. Urbansky volunteered for the Union Army in 1861 at eighteen years old. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for Gallantry in Battle, an award which is commemorated on his tombstone. Urbansky is one of six Union soldiers to obtain the honor and the medal recipient buried at Walnut Hills. A new headstone was installed for Urbansky in 2000 and celebrated with a twenty one gun salute and a color guard dressed in Civil War garments. 

The cemetery features a memorial obelisk that honors the Jewish soldiers that died during the Civil War. The obelisk was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day in 1868 in a service officiated by Rabbis Wise and Lilienthal. The monument was refurbished in 2008. The memorial stands behind a collection of cenotaphs, markers for individuals buried elsewhere, which have been erected to memorialize Jewish war dead lost in the Civil War. The cenotpah installation was expanded over time to memorialize more soldiers who were killed in other wars. 

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A toppled headstone in the older part of the cemetery 

One thing that is noticeable during a walking tour of the cemetery is the number of headstones in disrepair, some even toppled over and resting on the ground. Given the age of the cemetery, it is not surprising that time has taken a toll and damaged some of them. Customarily, the families of those interred are responsible for upkeep of the grave, including monument or headstone management and care. However, some of the occupants of the cemetery have no living family left to oversee this type of maintenance, so the JCGC steps in. Some of the fundraising done in the yearly campaigns helps fund ground and monument management, as well as monument restoration. David Harris, current Executive Director of JCGC, said “We are always doing fundraising, trying to make sure we have all the necessary resources to care for all the graves throughout the Jewish cemeteries.” Monument restoration is “something we are definitely working on, but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take resources.” Monument preservation, according to Harris, is only one part of the upkeep needed for maintaining Cincinnati’s Jewish cemeteries. Hillside slipping, drainage issues, retaining wall replacement, among other things, are issues that need to be addressed in order to keep all of JCGC’s thirty five thousand graves and surrounding grounds in the best shape possible. 

If you get a chance to participate in one of the JCGC’s cemetery walking tours of any of their sites, take it. The vivid history of the Queen City is told through the headstones of many notable Jewish Cincinnatians, only a few of which are mentioned here. Each headstone is an opportunity to learn about an important facet of Cincinnati Jewish life and the rich tapestry of stories woven together by the many characters is not one to be missed. 

 

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