The Matzevah Foundation (TMF) seeks to remember and honor the Jewish heritage of Poland that was once a vital and vibrant part of the country before the Shoah (the Holocaust). We seek to remember the Jewish communities in Poland, to restore the memory of those that the world lost during the Shoah, and to reconcile Jews and Christians through dialogue and participating in a common mitzvah, or righteous act, together.
Our primary areas of work are:
Cemetery restorations: The Matzevah Foundation mobilizes volunteers from Poland and around the world to clean and clear Jewish cemeteries and burial sites. This mitzvah allows us to bring to light matzevah (headstones) that have not been visible for years. They serve as reminders to the absence of Jews in Poland today as well as the thriving Jewish life and culture that existed there before the Shoah.
We also partner with descendants to help reconnect them to their ancestral Polish community. Through working to restore a cemetery, families are able to discover and appreciate the Jewish legacy of their ancestors.
Commemorations: The Matzevah Foundation works with our Polish partner organizations who focus on locating and commemorating unmarked burial sites, including mass graves. Together we clean the site to make it visible and place a memorial marker that honors the lives of those buried there.
Most of the time, we do not know the identity or stories of the people buried in these locations. By commemorating their final resting place, we are able to honor and remember their lives. The memorial marker also serves as a reminder to local citizens of the area that Jewish people once lived, worked, and thrived in their community.
Education: The Matzevah Foundation believes that creating awareness of Poland’s Jewish heritage is key in remembering and honoring them. We do this through a variety of educational means that include: sharing about local Jewish heritage and history with project volunteers, providing an overview of the Halakah (Jewish law) and the important role it plays as we work in a Jewish cemetery, and sharing historical aspects of the Jewish culture in Poland.
Members of The Matzevah Foundation also participate in speaking engagements across the country where they share about the work of the organization. We have had the opportunity to share with groups at temples, churches, at genocide conferences, and at Jewish film festivals.
Why Care for Jewish Cemeteries?
We are not Jewish so for us, caring for Jewish cemeteries is not obligatory. However, we realize the importance of this mitzvah, or good deed, and we are driven by gemilut chasadim, “the giving of loving-kindness," as our motivation to care for abandoned and desolate Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
We also realize that caring for the Jewish cemeteries in Poland is important to the Jew due to the Halakah, as the Torah teaches and as the rabbis teach us in the Talmud. We know that caring for the dead is one of the highest expressions of chesed, or loving-kindness, as the dead cannot repay us or anyone for the loving-kindness shown to them.
Caring for these numerous cemeteries is a daunting task for the Polish Jewish community. TMF desires to come alongside them to restore what has been lost to the years of neglect. Performing this mitzvah, or good deed, allows us to break the cycle of evil and forgetfulness which will lead to a path of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our hope is that our actions, words, and deeds will speak for those who no longer have a voice, for those who suffered and died at the hand of their oppressors during the Shoah. We celebrate their memory and act to honor it.
The beginnings of The Matzevah Foundation (TMF) go back to 2004, well before we officially became a nonprofit in 2010. Steven Reece and his young family had been living and working in Warsaw, Poland for several years where Steven was serving as a local Baptist pastor.
In 2004 while Steven was working with a local Baptist church in community ministry, he had a chance encounter one day with a Polish woman who lived in Otwock, a city just outside of Warsaw.
Anna was working in a restaurant where a group of volunteers was staying. She struck up a conversation with Steven about his work and what the volunteers were doing in her city. She asked him many questions at every meal about what the group was doing and why. Anna was very pleased to hear about the work and the good that they were doing in the area.
One day quite unexpectedly, Anna suggested that Steven take the young people to visit the Jewish cemetery in the city. Steven politely asked her, “Czy ma pani pochodzenie Żydowskie?” (“Madam, are you of Jewish descent?”)
She replied simply, “Yes.” And, she added very quickly, “There are many of us in hiding here.”
Sometime later, Steven went to visit this cemetery in the forest on the outskirts of Otwock, Poland. There in this quiet, lonely and desolate place, he began to consider a thought that for him was new and even radical:
What was significant about that Jewish cemetery to Anna? What was the meaning of a
cemetery to a Jew or someone who had Jewish heritage? He wanted to find out.
While he didn’t know it at the time, that brief chance encounter would forever change the direction of Steven’s life.
Pictures from the first visit to Otwock, Poland
Jewish Cemetery in 2005
Steven began to research why cemeteries were important to the Jewish community and what obligation, if any, that Christians might have in helping them to care for these holy places. It did not take long in his studies to recognize the deep chasm that existed between Jews and Christians, with the chief cause being attributed to the Shoah (the Holocaust). He also learned that there were around 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland and that the majority of them were in dramatic stages of neglect.
As a Christian, Steven always had a deep respect and gratitude towards the Jewish community as it was within the Jewish belief that Christianity was birthed. He began to consider the question of what should be his response as a Christian to the Shoah.
This led him to consider how he might reconcile his respect as a Christian for Jews and the events of the Shoah with a growing call to restore not only forgotten Jewish cemeteries around Warsaw, but also to restore these neglected Jewish burial grounds as a means to build a bridge to the Jewish community and open dialogue between Jews and Christians.
Soon he began to research how he might bring groups of American Baptist volunteers to care for and restore the Jewish cemetery in Otwock. His search led him to meet in early 2005 with the Rabbinical Commission for Matters of Cemeteries in Poland (RCC). When asked why he wanted to bring Christian volunteers to work in the Otwock Jewish cemetery, he responded simply, “pojednanie,” which means reconciliation.
The RCC approved Steven’s request and with that one word, he began to care for the Otwock Jewish cemetery by inviting the first group of American Baptists in the summer of 2005. Together they undertook the first stages of cleaning and clearing the cemetery. Over the next two years, more American Christians came and together with local Polish residents of Otwock and friends from the Warsaw area they made significant progress. They completed a full clearing of the overgrowth throughout the cemetery, placed large stones to mark the perimeter, and in cooperation with the Jewish community of Warsaw, inventoried the remaining matzevot (headstones) located in the cemetery.
Otwock, Poland Jewish Cemetery in 2007
After living in Poland for twelve years, the Reece family returned home to Atlanta, Georgia. The desire to continue the work in Jewish cemeteries in Poland remained. In 2009, Steven began meeting with several of those American Christians who had been involved with the Otwock project and who were committed to the work. They began to dream and consider how they could continue caring for and restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
After much planning and discussion, The Matzevah Foundation was established as a tax-exempt, 501(C)(3) nonprofit in 2010. Steven Reece serves as President and CEO of the organization. The Board of Directors and Advisory Board are compiled of like-minded people who have a passion for building relationships within the Jewish community and in remembering and honoring the Jewish history of Poland.
A priority for TMF in the early days was to partner formally with key organizations and people to guide and assist us in the work. Besides the RCC, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) became one of our first formal partners. FODZ manages, protects, and restores important Jewish sites around Poland including synagogues, cemeteries and other historically significant Jewish locations. They provide us with invaluable guidance and practical assistance as we work in various cemeteries around Poland.
The first years of work found us in many cities across Poland including Zambrów, Oświęcim, Kzepice, and Wolbrom, just to name a few. Projects were mostly comprised of cemetery restorations that were completed by wonderful teams of international and local volunteers. Some volunteers are from European countries such as Germany, France, and Ukraine, while others travel from many corners of the world, such as Israel, Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
TMF finds special joy in working alongside local Polish residents of the cities in which we work. Because of our relationship with local Poles, we are able to share about the importance of the Jewish cemetery and the Jewish community it represents in their town and pass along the desire to care for it after our time of work is over.
Local high school students volunteering with TMF in Krzepice, Poland 2017
A typical cemetery restoration project consists of clearing tall vegetation and undergrowth that has overtaken the cemetery. The volunteer teams use a variety of hand tools as well as power tools to cut down brush, remove fallen trees, and clear undergrowth. The tall vegetation obscures and can possibly damage the matzevot (headstones), the cemetery walls, ohels (burial houses of righteous and wise teachers), or other structures located within the cemetery. We also remove trash and debris from inside and outside the cemetery.
TMF had the privilege of expanding our borders for a unique opportunity in August 2018. We traveled to Rohatyn, Ukraine to work with our partners at Rohatyn Jewish Heritage. While we worked with them in the Old Jewish cemetery, several of the TMF team members were able to share knowledge and advice on how to effectively lead and manage a Jewish cemetery restoration project. We are grateful for Rohatyn Jewish Heritage’s friendship and support of our work in Poland . . . and maybe we’ll see you again in Ukraine!
Members of TMF, Rohatyn Jewish Heritage , and the United States Peace Corps in Rohatyn, Ukraine 2018
Another aspect of our work in Poland is that of commemoration. Whether it’s a cemetery or a mass grave in a forest in a remote area of Poland, we work with descendants, local communities, and other organizations. It is through such commemoration projects that we established partnerships with two other organizations: Friends of Jewish Heritage and Fundacja Zapomniane..
Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland invited The Matzevah Foundation to Markuszów, Poland in 2016. A team of Jewish descendants with roots in Poland and Christians from the U.S. worked with local volunteers to clear and clean the cemetery of dense overgrowth, remove trash and debris, and participate in a commemoration ceremony at the end of the week.
Cemetery commemoration in Markuszów, Poland 2016
Since 2016, TMF has worked with Fundacja Zapomniane (Foundation of the Forgotten) to commemorate three mass grave locations in Radecznica, Kramanowice, and Rogalów. In 2017, we began a joint project to research, locate, and identify forgotten mass graves sites. Together we located and marked 30 sites around Poland where individual, collective, or mass graves are situated.
At present, Fundacja Zapomniane has researched more than 250 such locations across Poland. These particular 30 sites were selected to raise awareness about the need to remember and to engage the local communities in the work of remembering.
Before this initiative, there were no markers or signs that denoted the places of rest for countless numbers of Jews who were executed during the Shoah. Simple, yet beautiful, the wooden markers were created and placed in these 30 locations as a step toward commemoration. As an example in 2018, two of the 30 mass grave locations in Karmanowice and Rogalów were commemorated in partnership with local residents, government officials, and other Polish organizations.
Commemoration in Karmanowice, Poland 2018
With each year, The Matzevah Foundation grows in the scope of influence, recognition, and breadth of projects we undertake around Poland. TMF’s President, Steven Reece, continues to be sought after by many organizations and individuals to speak on the work he and TMF are doing. He is also a highly regarded expert in the area of properly caring for Jewish cemeteries.
The actual work we do, the clearing of vegetation and debris in an overgrown cemetery or commemorating a forgotten burial spot, serves as the vehicle for what is ultimately our main goal.
TMF’s desire is not only to remember and honor the people who were part of the long-established Jewish communities in Poland for many generations but we also seek dialogue and work toward reconciliation with those who will join the work in each Jewish cemetery. Our work is a process and we are learning as we go.
With each day’s work a cemetery becomes more visible to us as well as to the current citizens of the town. When people travel by the cemetery they will see matzevot, a cleared piece of quiet land, or maybe a memorial marker. All these pieces serve as a visible and tangible reflection of Jewish lives, culture, heritage, and faith.
All of us at TMF come away from each project with a renewed sense of purpose in the work we do. We count it a privilege to serve the Jewish communities, whether past or present, through the work of our hands, through the friendships and partnerships we have, and through the ever-growing appreciation we have for our Jewish neighbors.