New nonprofit protects, preserves pioneer Jewish cemeteries

Stephen Kinsey knows a lot about Jewish tradition, including the dictum that cemeteries matter more than synagogues.

As chairman of the Commission for the Pioneer Jewish Historical Cemeteries, Kinsey oversees the protection of seven final resting places for long-departed Jews of the Mother Lode.

Over the last 12 months, his job got more challenging.

Aging tombstones in this Nevada City burial ground fall under the purview of the Commission for the Pioneer Jewish Historical Cemeteries. j file photo

That’s because the commission’s decades-long affiliation with Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum came to an end when U.C. Berkeley folded the museum collections into its Bancroft Library. As a result, the commission has had to go solo, reconstituting itself as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“Our purpose now is to educate, not just our children but the whole Jewish community about our heritage,” said Kinsey, who works as a middle school teacher in San Jose. “We want younger generations to be aware there is a Jewish presence in California dating back to 1850s.”

The commission was formed in 1962, thanks in large part to the Magnes’ late co-founder Seymour Fromer and the late professor Robert Levinson, who wrote, “Jews of the Gold Rush.” Levinson rediscovered the sites and arranged for the state to deed the cemeteries to the commission.

“When Bob found these cemeteries, they were in disrepair,” added Kinsey, who served as Levinson’s graduate student. “Some people were stealing the headstones.”

Dating back to the mid-19th century, the cemeteries are located mostly along historic California State Highway 49 in Gold Rush Country.  According to Kinsey, they were vital to the early Jewish communities of Sonora, Jackson, Mokelemne Hill, Placerville, Grass Valley and Nevada City. 

Since the establishment of the Commission another Jewish cemetery, this one in Marysville, located 30 miles north of Sacramento in Yuba County, also came under its care. With 55 headstones, it is the largest of the seven.

Because these are historical cemeteries and state landmarks, no more burials are permitted on the sites.

The volunteer commission members do more than lead educational tours of the sites. The members will often go out to the cemeteries, get on their knees and pull up weeds. For years Eagle Scouts and b’nai mitzvah kids, synagogue youth groups and others have trekked to the Mother Lode to clean and weed the cemeteries.

Some are tiny and under lock and key, such as the cemetery in Grass Valley, which has a total of 12 graves. Others are larger and in much better shape. All require maintenance.

The commission’s 25-member board of trustees meets regularly, but because those members live everywhere from Aptos to Folsom, they usually teleconference. Kinsey wants to add members, especially as they embark on a new task: fundraising.

“Most of us have never been involved in fundraising, including yours truly,” Kinsey said. “I have a strong passion for what Bob [Levinson] started, and I want it to continue.”

That means filling the commission’s coffers to an estimated $25,000 annual operating budget. For marketing and educational purposes, the commission is creating a website and a video, which will feature scenes from the cemeteries and commentary by Berkeley historian Ava Kahn.

Meanwhile, the work of the commission goes on, though they do get some help from unexpected quarters.

“The Sonora cemetery is the cleanest,” Kinsey noted of the site, which is located right next to a sheriff’s station. “The prisoners’ work detail is to maintain the cemetery.”

For information or to organize trips to the cemeteries, e-mail Stephen Kinsey at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.