Easing The Pain
Joe Winter maintains Beth El cemetery
with compassion in every season.
| Stacy Gittleman
| Special to the Jewish News
Winter, especially the record-breaking one Detroit just endured, can be isolating and depressing. It is harder still for those observing an anniversary of a loved one’s death to visit their grave in a snow-covered cemetery.
Fittingly so, a man named Joe Winter, caretaker at Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia, eases the sorrow of the mourner bymaking sure that certain graves and the paths leading to them are cleared of snow.
For almost three decades, Winter, 56, has cared for the cemetery and lived in a house just outside the ground Joe Winter where he and his wife, Claudia, raised their four children.
Trained as a horticulturist, Winter always enjoyed working outside and saw his occupation as a peaceful one. He started out as a groundskeeper at Gethsemane Cemetery in Detroit and then became superintendent of the Beth El Memorial Park in 1985.
Growing up, his children never thought the location of their house was odd.
“They always just considered it as one quiet backyard. I’d let them ride their bikes
on the paths after the gates had closed for the day,” he said.
As superintendent of the cemetery, Winter’s responsibilities include keeping in daily contact with local rabbis and funeral directors to schedule burials. He also is the cemetery’s main record keeper.
The cemetery is open every day from morning until 5 p.m., except Saturday. If a mourner needs to linger a bit after 5 p.m., he says he does not mind keeping the cemetery gates open a bit longer.
As the weather warms, Winter and his staff keep the lawns mowed and the bushes trimmed. He provides a supply of American
flags come Memorial Day weekend and makes sure they stay up on each grave until Flag Day on June 14.
“Of all the mourners, the toughest ones to see when they come here are the parents of
young children,” Winter said. He recalled a woman who lost a young son and visited the
grave nearly every day for eight years.
“Joe Winter deals with human beings during the most vulnerable moments of their
lives,” said Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Hills. Syme, who has
worked with Winter for 17 years, said overseeing a cemetery is a job that not many can
“He supports all who come to the cemetery at a time when they are looking for
kindness, when their own inner coping resources are not there,” Syme said.
One such person Winter has comforted in his work is Julie Unatin of Huntington
On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2000, Unatin gave birth to a son, Ryan. Five days later,
baby Ryan died. What should have been the happiest of days for her, husband, Brian,
and their two daughters turned out to be the worst.
In March of that same year, Unatin, a teacher consultant for the blind for the
Oakland Intermediate School District, learned that another co-worker, Kate
Salathiel, also had lost a child. The deaths of their children have created a special bond between the two women.
Each winter, they support each other as they visit their children’s gravesites in different
cemeteries — not on the anniversary of their death, but on the day they were born.
Expecting her arrival at Beth El Memorial Park, Winter clears a path to Ryan’s grave
in advance of her visit. Winter also makes sure that any snow is brushed away from the
“Every year I know what I will find,” Unatin said. “A beautiful stone that has been
dusted and cleared; sprinkled with 14 years’ worth of small tokens. Without even being
asked, Joe makes my unbearable Valentine’s Day a bit more bearable.”
A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.
As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.
Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.
But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.
In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.
So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).
So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?
I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well? Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?
With what other country do we identify?
I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.
So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.
So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.
A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.
This is the hat of our heritage.
Tonight, my kids will most likely go to bed wearing their pajamas inside out. The youngest will have tucked a spoon underneath his pillow. My daughter told me that at middle school, the bets were already on at school today as to whether tomorrow would be a snow day. After all, that storm that slammed the midwest has now put Rochester in a “persistent band of lake effect snow.” And here in Rochester, we may be getting 1-2 feet of this lake effect snow. All this snow, yet not a single weather report has used the word “storm” or “blizzard.”
When my oldest children were very small, I feared that they would grow up without having a chance to play in the snow. Their first winters in New Jersey passed with hardly a flake. Then, we moved to Rochester.
Moving to the snowiest metropolitan area in the lower 48 meant that we would have plenty of chances for snowball fights and snowman building. We also needed to adjust our perception of what constitutes a significant snowfall.
You see, we started our family in New Jersey, in the land of 2-inch snowfall snow days. One morning, when my daughter attended preschool at the Scotch Plains JCC, I bundled her up, along with her infant brother, to go to preschool. I traversed 2-inch snow-covered roads, only to find the building was closed.
Fast forward to a year later, One morning, after a three-inch overnight snowfall, I actually called my daughter’s preschool – this time at the JCC of Greater Rochester – to see if it was open.
I think I heard the director silence a chuckle as she politely told me that schools here don’t close unless there is at least 18 inches of snow.
For schoolchildren and adults alike, nothing is more exciting than the possibility of a snow day. And when I moved to Rochester, I thought that we would be having a lot of those days that are like gifts from God. Snow days are like God’s way of telling you to slow down, sleep in, stay warm, bake cookies.
Well, the Rochester School District seems to care little about what God wants, because nary a snow day have we had since living up here in the snowbelt.
It’s been 11 years and my husband has yet to have a snow day from work. No, wait. The only “snow day” at his job had been in the summer. Why? It wasn’t because of snow. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT snow in Rochester in July.
It was a tree that fell on a transformer and blew the power out at his office.
So, on snowy days, my husband braves the snow. He plows himself out of the driveway in the dark of the morning, and then plows to get back in the driveway in the dark of the evening.
Rochesterians are very lucky to have the equipment it takes to fight against Old Man Winter. Brighton tax dollars – more than half a million each year — are hard at work so in the early morning hours, I can hear the sounds of snowplows large and small clearing our roads and sidewalks.
So, before I go to bed tonight, I will check the forecast one more time. And if I hear those blessed three words “Brighton Schools Closed” on the radio tomorrow morning , I know will be too excited to go back to sleep.
But I know school will be on tomorrow.
In spite of the spoons
and the inside-out pajamas.
and the ice cubes placed in the toilet.
Because, in reality, it’s just too early in the season to cancel school tomorrow. After all, technically, it is still Autumn. And this is Rochester.