The 36-month project to expand and beautify the existing Jewish section of the Gavilan Hills Memorial Park at 1000 First St. in Gilroy has finally been completed.
Visitors to the memorial park can find the Jewish section – named Gan Emet (Hebrew for “Emeth Gardens”) – on the west side of the cemetery shaded beneath towering trees. The area has expanded to three times its original size and now has a steel fence that serves as its physical boundary.
“Traditionally, Jews are buried in their own section with a physical boundary separating them from the rest of the cemetery,” explained Rabbi Debbie Israel, spiritual leader of Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill, the only Jewish synagogue in South County.
“Cemetery space is considered sacred and special care is taken to maintain the holiness attached to it,” Israel said. “It is considered an eternal home.”
A Jewish section of the memorial park has been there for around 25 years and roughly 10 people are buried there. Congregation Emeth decided it deserved more attention and care.
The physical work to install a fence, re-sod the area and move the Holocaust memorial to a more prominent location took a year. During the 18 months before work started, Israel researched the rules set forth in the Talmud – the core text of Judaism – and liberal interpretations of previous rabbinic rulings that govern a Jewish cemetery’s design and construction.
“We were taking on a lot of responsibility,” Israel said, referring to the importance of getting the cemetery right in the eyes of her faith.
Visitors may see small rocks placed on top of the gravestones; a tangible sign the grave has been visited. It also symbolizes that God is called the “Rock of Israel” in the Jewish faith.
Working in partnership with Jim Habing of Habing Family Funeral Home, which owns the cemetery, Congregation Emeth saw its vision take shape.
Along with the untold “sweat equity,” the fencing alone cost $10,000, said Grant Gordon, Congregation Emeth’s president.
“There were lots of expenses that Jim Habing incurred that he never billed us for,” Gordon noted.
Gordon and Israel are thankful for the strong relationship forged with Habing during the planning and execution phases of the project.
“Everything that was done was done with his support and cooperation,” Israel recalled.
Along with the goodwill shown by Habing, funding for the rejuvenation also came in through a charity fund set up by Israel.
Investing so much time in getting the project exactly right didn’t matter to Israel. There aren’t any other Jewish cemeteries in South County and only a few exist in Salinas and Silicon Valley, she explained.
“That’s what makes it so wonderful,” she beamed.