To get to her parents’ graves, Beth Rocke, 77, rides the A train more than an hour from Morningside Heights in Manhattan to Ozone Park, Queens.
Rocke, who sometimes needs a cane, slowly descends the stairs of the shabby elevated train station, then walks past modest homes, industrial buildings and the barbed wire perimeter of Bayside Cemetery until she reaches the entrance.
But it’s the last part of the journey that is the most difficult. Rocke makes her way through paths overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter and twigs, mausoleums with broken windows and filthy floors, and past countless plots in which the rusted fences are broken and wildflowers and shrubbery have grown so high that only the tops of the headstones peek out. In many plots, the headstones have toppled over.
“I get unbelievably depressed every time I come here,” says Rocke, a retired businesswoman who has served in management positions at Revlon, Playtex and Clairol.
Although most of this Jewish cemetery has been in bad condition for years, until recently Rocke could count on her family’s 15-by-12-foot plot being kept up. After years of paying for annual care, in 1988 she and her cousins decided to purchase perpetual care for $4,750, and she has color photos showing the grass neatly trimmed and free of weeds.
Now the grass and dandelions grow high — although it is not nearly as bad as in many areas of the cemetery — and a section of the rusted iron fence cordoning off the plot is broken. Near the edge of the cemetery, where Rocke’s grandparents are buried, the foliage is thicker and a small brass placard from the Jewish War Veterans lies on the ground.
Looking around the cemetery, she says, “To me this is not neglect — it’s desecration.”
Last year Rocke, who vows to keep pressing for improvement at her family plot “when I’m 94 and in a wheelchair,” took Congregation Shaare Zedek, the Upper West Side synagogue that owns the cemetery, to small claims court and won $2,364. Now, still dissatisfied with conditions at Bayside, she is exploring whether she has grounds for another lawsuit.
Bayside Cemetery has long been overgrown and plagued by vandals and litter. Most observers familiar with the situation say it is in worse condition than virtually any other Jewish cemetery in the New York area.
Shaare Zedek — a synagogue that fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s and now serves a largely Gen-X constituency — has sponsored periodic cleanups at the cemetery and says in the past few years it has subsidized the meager cemetery fund with approximately $65,000 a year, 20 percent of the synagogue’s total operating budget.
But the cemetery’s small staff appears to lack the experience, manpower and funding to protect Bayside’s approximately 35,000 graves from further damage, let alone improve them.
And in recent years, with the death of longtime manager Ethel Sheiker, the cemetery’s general neglect has spread even to those few plots that have perpetual care — and people like Rocke who visit them regularly.
Now, with Bayside in a condition that many associate with cemeteries in European towns where Jews are long gone, and with Shaare Zedek saying it cannot afford to increase its investment, the question is: Who is responsible for ensuring that the dead of Bayside Cemetery, one of New York’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, are honored according to Jewish tradition? The members of Shaare Zedek? The descendants of the buried? The larger Jewish community?
Should Shaare Zedek, as some have suggested and as some defunct synagogues have done, sell its building — worth an estimated $2.6 million according to New York City’s property assessment department — to pay for the cemetery’s upkeep?
The cemetery’s current woes stem from a variety of factors, among them:
# Insufficient funds. Revenues from the cemetery’s endowment, annual care payments and donations total less than $40,000 a year, according to the synagogue. With the addition of synagogue funds, Bayside operates on approximately $95,000 a year. Synagogue leaders estimate that it would cost more than $1 million to restore the cemetery to good condition and at least $100,000 a year to maintain it. It is not clear, in part due to years of poor recordkeeping, whether the lack of money stems from poor planning and inadequate perpetual care fees, from funds that were diverted to pay for synagogue expenses, or a combination of these.
# Incomplete records of burials and perpetual care contracts stemming from years in which the synagogue, which at one point had no rabbi and infrequent services, paid virtually no attention to the cemetery management, according to current synagogue leaders.
# No new revenue. Most cemeteries are partially funded through the sale of new graves and through fees, such as grave openings, from new burials. Bayside has no plots left to sell, and only a handful of burials occur there each year.
# No government oversight. Unlike most Jewish cemeteries in New York, Bayside is registered as a religious group and not a nonprofit, meaning that it is exempt from government regulation. State officials say they are aware of the problems at Bayside but powerless to do anything about it.
The Shaare Zedek Saga
It wasn’t always like this. In 1842, Shaare Zedek, then located on the Lower East Side, bought the land for the cemetery, setting aside roughly 5 percent for its members. It sold the remaining plots to individuals and voluntary burial societies, many of which, it is now believed, assumed responsibility for maintenance of their plots.
But by the middle of the 20th century, Shaare Zedek, which in the 1920s moved to its current building on West 93rd Street, began to flounder with the decline of the Upper West Side. By the 1980s, say current activists in the congregation, the synagogue was “essentially defunct,” with no rabbi and irregular services.
Shaare Zedek’s demise coincided with the disappearance of many Jewish burial societies, social groups that had taken an active interest in the condition of the graves. It also coincided with the migration of many New York Jews to the suburbs and beyond, creating a situation in which many descendants of those buried live far away and are unable to visit the cemetery regularly.
It was at this time that the cemetery began to suffer and when, some speculate, cemetery funds may have been diverted, probably to subsidize the synagogue’s faltering budget.
Adding to the cemetery woes is the fact that graves are very close together and the land is both heavily wooded and fertile for weeds, making maintenance highly labor-intensive.
In the late 1990s, the synagogue began to bounce back as the Upper West Side became a hub for young Jews. A large minyan that met in Shaare Zedek’s basement officially merged with the synagogue in 1994, and the congregation soon hired the young and charismatic Rabbi Hillel Norry, who was credited with attracting a younger crowd.
The newcomers were thrilled to inherit a large, well-located synagogue with lovely stained-glass windows and ceiling and a wooden Art Deco ark two stories high. They were less thrilled about the neglected cemetery, only 20 miles but seemingly worlds away from the bustle of the Upper West Side, that came with it.
In recent years, the traditional Conservative synagogue has drawn a largely Shabbat-observant crowd with its Camp Ramah-style of worship. Many of the approximately 230 members are rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary or the children of rabbis. Among them is the son of Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
For several years, Rabbi Norry was a vocal champion of the cemetery, organizing cleanup days and speaking of the synagogue’s responsibility for it. But, say insiders, board interest began to wane in the past year and a half, with many arguing that the synagogue needed to focus more of its attention on maintaining the Upper West Side building, which needs a new boiler and possibly a new roof, and on developing more programming for young families.
This summer Rabbi Norry took a job in Atlanta, leaving the board to focus much of its time and energy on finding a new rabbi. Rabbi Norry could not be reached for comment.
Joel Shaiman, a former board member who is now chairing the rabbi search committee, attributes some of Bayside’s current problems to the fact that under Sheiker’s reign, the cemetery took a shortsighted approach. It invested its limited resources in the plots belonging to people, like Rocke, who visited regularly, but at the expense of maintaining the larger cemetery.
Recently the synagogue reversed Sheiker’s policy.
“There’s a limited amount of dollars. Should I focus on those 200 graves with yellow stickers, or do I focus on the 34,800 graves that don’t have stickers?”
Shaiman asks, referring to the stickers that designate perpetual care.
Clearing trees from the edge of the cemetery has been one of the top priorities in an effort to deter vandals. But that has come at the expense of maintaining perpetual care plots — and some of the falling trees have toppled over headstones.
Bayside’s small staff has to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” Shaiman says.
Rocke is not the only person upset by the changes.
Howard Fried, 45, of the Lower East Side, has had a lawyer negotiating with the synagogue since conditions in the 50-grave plot he oversees deteriorated last year.
Fried’s group, the Chechonover Society — one of the few active Jewish burial societies remaining — pays $275 a year for seasonal care. But last year the overgrowth was so bad he says he couldn’t even enter the plot.
At the cemetery manager’s request, Fried says he donated $500 extra last year to pay for new weed whackers to clean the plot. But conditions in his section worsened, and nine headstones were toppled over recently when cemetery staff chopped down neighboring trees. If the cemetery doesn’t pay for the stones to be replaced, Fried says he is considering taking it to court.
“If they say have no money, maybe their books have to be audited,” Fried says.
Shaiman says the synagogue is willing to pay for Fried to have someone fix the headstones. The stumbling block, Shaiman says, is not the money but the fact that Fried is also demanding the synagogue guarantee that the plot receives better care.
Given the financial constraints, Shaiman says that’s a promise the synagogue cannot make. But to people with perpetual or annual care, that’s like being told that their payments have bought them absolutely nothing.
Some have suggested that the synagogue sell its assets — particularly its building — and set up an endowment for the cemetery with the proceeds.
That apparently was the suggestion of David Jacobson, who manages Acacia Cemetery and Mokom Sholom — cemeteries on either side of Bayside — when Shaare Zedek said it would like to hand over Bayside to him but could not afford a large enough endowment to cover costs. Not surprisingly, the synagogue demurred.
Dan Werlin, Shaare Zedek’s 29-year-old president, says there have been some informal discussions about selling the building — in part because it is not well-configured for all synagogue programming — but that is “not being considered at this point.”
“It would be a tremendous dislocation if we sold the building,” Werlin says.
A Community Issue?
Just whose responsibility is the cemetery?
Shaiman, who says he is frustrated that the cemetery is not a higher priority for more Shaare Zedek members, says, “Personally, I feel the synagogue has a responsibility” to the cemetery and that it is also in the long-term interest of the synagogue to resolve the cemetery’s problems.
However, he sees the flip side as well.
“The question is, because one day I decided to walk into Shaare Zedek rather than Young Israel, why is this problem my problem? I could choose to not be a member and go join B’nai Jeshurun and then it isn’t my issue,” Shaiman says. “To say it’s a synagogue-only responsibility, given that in this day and age a lot of synagogues don’t have continuity of membership, is putting too much of the problem back on the synagogue. It’s really a community issue.”
Given the seemingly infinite needs of the cemetery, Werlin is reluctant to sink in more synagogue dollars at the expense of other priorities, even though he says the synagogue has a “moral obligation” to care for the cemetery.
“Long term it’s one of the highest priorities, but it’s not something we foresee unfortunately being fixed as soon as some of the other things that have a lower priority but can be done” with less money, he says.
Ultimately, Werlin says he would like to see the cemetery “be fully restored such that we would feel proud that it’s a Shaare Zedek cemetery and that people who have plots there would go there and feel their loved ones are being properly attended to.”
Ideally, he says, the cemetery would have an endowment large enough to fund itself with the interest. But just how to get to that point is not clear.
Shaare Zedek leaders say they are starting to seek help from the broader Jewish community. They raised $6,000 this year — a tiny percentage of the overall budget — by writing to people who pay annual care and asking them for additional contributions.
In response to Shaare Zedek’s request for help, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism recently offered to organize cleanup days at the cemetery with local members of United Synagogue Youth.
Now there is talk also at Shaare Zedek of approaching foundations, Jewish genealogy groups, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan and UJA-Federation of New York, which helped buy a for-profit funeral home two years ago and convert it into a community-run nonprofit. In Chicago, the Jewish federation recently took over a much smaller abandoned cemetery.
Rabbi Michael Paley, UJA-Federation’s executive director of synagogue and community affairs — who was involved in the purchase of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel two years ago — says no one has approached him about Bayside. However, Paley says he would be willing to consider helping Bayside in some manner if asked.
But seeking a cemetery solution, Shaare Zedek insiders acknowledge, has taken a back seat in recent months due to the rabbi search. And many are skeptical that dollars are out there.
Officials with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which has helped advocate for better care at some nonprofit area cemeteries, say they have sought solutions for Bayside over the years but that it is difficult to find anyone interested in donating serious money to a cemetery.
Manny Behar, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, which has helped coordinate some cleanup days at the cemetery, says that with the economy bad and with Jewish social service and education needs competing for philanthropic attention, “It’s not realistic to expect that we’re going to raise the kind of money that’s needed to really do the job there.”
However, Jewish philanthropists have shown interest in cemeteries overseas. Rabbi Michael Shudrich, who serves as rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz in Poland, is overseeing a new effort in Poland to restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Numerous individuals with ancestors in Poland have donated, he said, to ensure their ancestors’ graves are maintained.
“If we can do it in Poland, I certainly hope we can do it in Queens,” says Rabbi Shudrich, who spends half his time in Poland and half his time in New York.
Lynn Cohen, a 60-something woman from Riverdale whose great-grandfather is buried at Bayside, says the cemetery conditions are “shameful” and “not the Jewish way.”
“It needs some leadership in the proper circles where you can generate some money to take care of it,” Cohen says. “I’m not angry at anyone, but I cry whenever I go there.”
The Boston Model
Ultimately, the answer may come from looking to the example of Boston.
In 1984, faced with five abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries, the Jewish community there came together with federation help and formed the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts.
JCAM, as it is known, has become the eastern Massachusetts Jewish community’s “cemetery management agency,” says Jane Salk, the group’s executive director.
By pooling the assets of several area cemeteries, raising additional dollars from individuals and generating revenues from grave sales, the group is able to fund cemetery maintenance.
JCAM now owns almost 90 cemeteries and has an endowment of more than $5 million. According to Salk, the money is adequate for now, although there is concern that some of the older cemeteries will need costly major repairs in the future.
David Zinner, executive director of Kavod V’Nichum, a new national Jewish organization that provides information about Jewish mourning and burial traditions, says: “I think it’s really important for the entire Jewish community to make this a priority, and create this kind of cemetery association.” He adds that without networks such as JCAM, “We’ll have more abandoned cemeteries,” citing high maintenance costs and the disappearance of burial societies.
Back at Bayside Cemetery, Beth Rocke — the only member of her family who still lives in New York — appears to be the sole visitor on this warm day in early October, other than a few firemen who have wandered in during a break from doing safety inspections in the neighborhood.
In the distance, the elevated A train rumbles by on the cemetery’s northern border and planes roar overhead, bound for nearby Kennedy Airport. Rocke removes a stray plastic cup from her family’s plot before laying rocks on her parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ headstones.
Rocke, who never married and has no children, plans to be cremated when she dies, rather than be buried in the remaining space in the family plot.
“There’s nobody to take care of it,” she says.