At 11 o’clock on a muggy Sunday morning last month, the normally desolate strip of Pitkin Avenue that borders Bayside Cemetery suddenly sprang to life.
Cars pulled up to the sidewalk by the concertina wire-topped fence that surrounds much of this Ozone Park, Queens burial ground and the two smaller graveyards on either side of it. About 35 people — including representatives of UJA-Federation of New York, the New York Police Department and Manhattan’s Congregation Shaare Zedek — filed through the gate on the historic Jewish cemetery’s southern edge, gathering outside the dilapidated brick building that houses the cemetery’s office and bathroom.
Andy Schultz, the 33-year-old executive director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, grabbed a microphone. With the 13-acre Jewish burial ground as his backdrop, the elevated A train visible at its northern boundary, he said, “We’re celebrating today as a milestone here. It’s not ‘mission accomplished’ yet, but we have reached an important point.”
With a multi-year $140,000 UJA-Federation-funded cleanup effort just completed, this long-overgrown and frequently vandalized Jewish cemetery looks better than it has in more than two decades.
But the question is, with the weeds and other vegetation dotting this 170-year-old burial ground growing rapidly, and with limited resources available for maintenance, will the improvements last?
Perhaps most importantly, is CAJAC — established in 2006 and with Schultz its sole employee — capable of rallying support for the decidedly un-sexy, but nonetheless necessary cause of cemetery maintenance?
As Gary Katz, CAJAC’s 40-something president, notes, “There aren’t many people under age 70 who spend time thinking about these issues.”
Plagued by vandalism, toppled gravestones, abundant poison ivy and rainforest-like vegetation that blocked access to most graves, Bayside Cemetery was for decades a case study in how not to manage a burial ground.
Shaare Zedek, a 175-year-old congregation (now Conservative and on the Upper West Side, it was originally Orthodox and on the Lower East Side), has owned Bayside since the cemetery’s founding. But it sold most of the plots to scores of different Jewish burial societies, the majority of them now defunct.
How much money the synagogue collected from grave sales, and exactly what it promised in return, is today a point of heated contention and the subject of a class-action lawsuit that has been in New York State Supreme Court for three years.
Shaare Zedek’s leaders have long argued that poor recordkeeping, poor planning and the demise of the burial societies, is why it currently lacks adequate funds to maintain the cemetery. Going forward, synagogue officials — who declined to say how much they spend annually on cemetery maintenance, although a few years ago the synagogue spent approximately $100,000 a year — believe that responsibility for Bayside lies not with it, a 100-household shul, but with the larger New York Jewish community.
While they hope eventually to transfer responsibility for the cemetery to a communal body, Shaare Zedek officials insist they are committed to maintaining the cemetery for now, a job made easier by the newly completed federation-funded and CAJAC-managed cleanup effort. A Woodmere, L.I., landscaping firm did the bulk of the work, and Shaare Zedek has contracted with that firm to do ongoing maintenance.
While Bayside is hardly pristine now, and many mausoleums and tombstones remain damaged, thousands of trees have been cleared, paths have been created and every gravesite is now accessible.
The completed cleanup “allows us to maintain the cemetery on a day-to-day basis much more effectively,” said Daniel Goldberg, Shaare Zedek’s treasurer. “We expect the condition of the cemetery to be far better than it was in the past and perhaps to improve.”
However, the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, similar to one filed in 2007 in federal court (and dismissed), are more skeptical. The suit, on behalf of various descendants of people buried at Bayside, alleges that Shaare Zedek misused perpetual care funds. Had the money been managed and protected properly, the plaintiffs contend, the cemetery would now have ample resources to maintain the cemetery. They argue that the synagogue — “a dysfunctional organization led by a bunch of sinners and crooks,” according to an e-mail from plaintiff John Lucker — should sell its building, on West 91st Street, to pay for the cemetery.
Caught in the middle of the conflict is the six-year-old CAJAC, which receives $80,000 a year from UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission; the rest of its funding comes primarily from individual donations. While its stated goal is to help resolve the situation at Bayside, and intervene on behalf of various other Jewish cemeteries at risk of becoming like Bayside, those suing Shaare Zedek/Bayside have a more sinister interpretation.
Lucker and his pro bono attorney Michael Buchman, included CAJAC in their 2009 suit, contending that the group is a “shell corporation” created solely to absolve Shaare Zedek of liability for the cemetery. In January, New York Supreme Court Justice Debra James disagreed, however, dismissing the complaints against CAJAC. She also dismissed various causes of action in the class-action suit against Shaare Zedek/Bayside, but did not dismiss all of them; the case is still ongoing, with Buchman planning to file additional papers in July.
For CAJAC’s leaders, the charges against them seem ludicrous, and they feel vindicated by James’ ruling. CAJAC, which works closely with the Hebrew Free Burial Association (Katz is a vice president of that group), is a separate entity from Shaare Zedek and its scope goes well beyond Bayside, they emphasize.
“The major focus of CAJAC is to identify places where we can avoid future disasters and to intervene early, leveraging other resources to prevent huge problems,” Katz, a former member of Shaare Zedek who now lives in Westchester County, told The Jewish Week. “The second priority is actual cleanup and reclamation of cemeteries that are already completely shot.”
In addition to overseeing the newly completed onetime cleanup of Bayside and coordinating volunteer cleanups at Bayside and other cemeteries, CAJAC has been active on numerous fronts in the past few years, Katz said, describing the organization’s role as “the midwife of solutions.”
Among its accomplishments so far:
n Advocating on behalf of Sherwood Park Cemetery, a small Jewish cemetery in Yonkers owned by a synagogue in the process of dissolving. Whereas Congregation Brothers of Israel initially set aside only $25,000 from the sale of its building for the cemetery’s ongoing care, CAJAC successfully pressed the Attorney General’s office to delay approving the synagogue’s liquidation until significantly more money was set aside for the cemetery. Fleetwood Synagogue, which is two miles from the cemetery, has tentatively agreed to assume responsibility if given approximately $200,000 to put into a perpetual care fund, although details are still being finalized.
♦ Persuading Touro Law School to take over a neglected Suffolk County cemetery originally owned by a neighboring psychiatric facility.
♦ Pressing Baron Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island to set aside adequate money for its endowment, and helping a still-functioning Jewish burial society to arrange a onetime cleanup of its section there.
♦ Consulting with various neglected Jewish cemeteries in New Jersey, a state with less cemetery regulation than New York. (Bayside and numerous other Jewish cemeteries are not subject to New York State regulations, however, because they are incorporated as religious, rather than nonprofit, institutions.)
Katz, an attorney specializing in bankruptcy and reorganization, speculates that Bayside and the other cemeteries that CAJAC has worked with so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
“There are Jewish cemeteries that look beautiful today, but if I had access to their books and records, I might find they will be insolvent in 20-30 years,” he said, noting that once the cemetery is full and the last grave sold (as at Bayside), cemeteries have no revenue besides the interest from funds put in trust.
“Even with tens of thousands of accountants, actuaries, unions, shareholders and government regulators involved, we have a huge pension problem in America, and scores of iconic companies have been brought to bankruptcy by under-funded pensions,” he said. “So what leads any rational person to think that cemeteries, with less oversight, acumen and skill have figured out a way to ensure they are properly endowed?”
Richard Fishman, director of the New York State Division of Cemeteries, oversees 1,783 cemeteries, 15 of them Jewish. Bayside, because it is incorporated as a religious organization, is exempt from the state’s oversight.
Ten percent of each grave sale at the nonprofit cemeteries must go into a permanent trust fund, along with $35 from the service charge applied to each interment. However, said Fishman, because so many Jewish cemeteries sold their plots in bulk to burial societies before 1949, when the 10 percent rule was established, “their permanent maintenance money is relatively low compared to at nonsectarian cemeteries.”
Asked his opinion about Bayside and CAJAC, Fishman emphasized that he was speaking “as a Jew, not as a representative of the state.”
He lamented that despite “tremendous efforts and expenditures to protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Europe, when you mention Jewish cemeteries in America, the interest is not always there. My feeling is, Jewish history is Jewish history and how could you allow Jewish cemeteries to fall into disrepair and be overgrown?”
Noting that CAJAC “is a beginning,” Fishman said, “Hopefully it can be expanded to be the backstop to take care of Jewish cemeteries in New York if and when they need them.”
With a total budget of $210,000 and only one staff person, CAJAC has nowhere near the resources to assure the future of New York’s Jewish cemeteries.
Asked how much money would be required to permanently endow all of New York’s at-risk Jewish cemeteries, Katz said “an initial pool of funds in the $3 million to $5 million range would solve all the known problems, but there would still need to be some ongoing fundraising.”
However, he cautioned, it is hard to know what the future holds. The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM) — an agency that CAJAC in some ways sees as a model — initially “thought there were six to eight cemeteries they would need to deal with,” he said. “They now own over 100.”
While eventually CAJAC may, like JCAM, raise enough money to become a centralized caretaker of New York-area Jewish cemeteries, for now, Katz says, it is focused on “identifying all the problems” and “finding solutions, but not necessarily being the solution.”
“The phase we’re most actively in now is identifying specific solutions and leveraging existing funds,” he said, adding that, “Our long-term plan, which I expect to focus on once we run out of low-hanging fruit, is take intractable problems and create some kind of centralized solution.”