Gershwin, Guggenheim, and of course, our synagogue’s founder and namesake: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. These are some of the giants on whose shoulders we stand and who are now at rest at our Westchester Hills Cemetery. Among them lies a lesser known, but equally noteworthy man: Sidney Hillman. A true Jewish leader, he helped shape our country — but he died 75 years ago. In fact, the deed to Hillman’s towering stone mausoleum is owned by the labor union he championed. “The memory of the righteous is a blessing,” says the Book of Proverbs. It’s up to us to keep his memory alive.
Born in a Lithuanian shtetl in 1887, Hillman founded the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a predecessor of Workers United. By the age of 13, Hillman had memorized much of the Talmud and was on the path toward becoming a rabbi, but the universe had other plans. While attending yeshiva, Hillman immersed himself in the revolutionary fervor sweeping Russia. Arrested twice for political activity, he spent several months in Czarist prisons before immigrating to Chicago, where he endured brutal conditions as a factory worker. When 45,000 local garment workers went on strike in 1910, Hillman acted as their advocate, emerging as a leading spokesman and negotiating their settlement, thus beginning his rise as a labor leader and political organizer. “We want a better America, an America that will give its citizens, first of all, a higher and higher standard of living so that no child will cry for food in the midst of plenty,” he famously said.
Hillman’s gift to us is his legacy — one that Stephen Wise Free Synagogue works to preserve by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, speaking up for the voiceless, and fighting for justice and equality. And to honor and sustain his memory — along with those of all who are buried at Westchester Hills — our community is committed to the cemetery’s upkeep and beautification. “The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place,” we recite during Yizkor.
Our synagogue founded Westchester Hills Cemetery just north of the city in Hastings-on-Hudson in 1932 as final resting place for our community. Nearly a century later, it is just as beautiful as it was when it opened, but the infrastructure has needed a major repair. Now, thanks to more than $2 million in tzedekah from families whose departed loved ones are laid to rest there, and after years of planning, and a pandemic that temporarily paused all construction, we have renovated and repaired our stone chapel administration building, also known as the Gatehouse. The building now provides a comfortable setting for bereaved families with the addition of a visitor reception area, new bathrooms, and an elevator leading to a glass enclosed chapel. This tranquil room, which looks out on to the cemetery’s lush green hills, is a beautiful setting to gather your loved ones for memorials and unveilings. For the next phase of the restoration, we hope to repair the roads and drainage systems to make the site more accessible to you and your loved ones for years to come.
We invite you to visit Westchester Hills this fall and explore the stories that have shaped us. If you are interested in planning for the future, please contact Meredith Byrne at (914) 478-1767 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Ryan Greiss.