The Westchester Jewish community this week praised a $100,000 settlement between a New Jersey real estate developer and the state attorney general that will create a memorial in Yonkers at the site of a shopping center garage built over an abandoned Jewish cemetery.
According to the agreement announced Monday by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the state will use the settlement to erect a memorial to the Congregation of the People of Righteousness cemetery near the Costco and Home Depot along the state Thruway.
Funds will be used as well to hire a historian to determine the history and fate of the people who had been buried in the cemetery.
Spitzer’s office had brought a case last year in state Supreme Court against Morris Industrial Builders.
The Clifton, N.J., developer had pledged to rebury in Israel the disinterred bodies from the century-old cemetery when it began construction on the site in 1989.
However, Deputy Attorney General Avi Schick, on a personal visit to Israel, went to the cemetery outside of Jerusalem where the bodies were reportedly buried and could not account for the remains of 135 children. He also found dozens of reinterred adult bodies buried two to a grave, a violation of Jewish law.
An investigation by the attorney general’s Charities Bureau in July found two headstones from the Yonkers cemetery discarded off a dirt road near the area.
“It was a shame that the incident happened,” said Laura Lewis, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Westchester chapter. “We don’t know where the remains are.”
Lewis called the settlement “all that can be expected from a very tragic situation for which there is really no repair. I hope that everyone has learned that we need to be more careful of human remains.”
Murray Gunner, executive director of the Jewish Council of Yonkers, said he was “very pleased with the results –– the names [of the people formerly buried in the cemetery] will be recognized.”
The council worked with the developer during the past decade to rebury the bodies in accordance with Jewish law and served as a consultant to the attorney general’s office on the case against Morris Builders, Gunner said.
“It was a very important issue” to the community, he said. “Burial is a very important part of Jewish law and Jewish life.”
The congregation, now defunct, agreed to give up the cemetery land for no payment in exchange for the developer’s reburial of the 250 bodies in Jerusalem. The deal was approved by the state Supreme Court.
The aging leaders of the congregation had been unable to protect the grounds against vandalism and overgrowth.
The most recent burial in the cemetery took place in the early 1940s, and few records are available, making it difficult to determine who was buried there.
As part of the settlement approved by state Supreme Court Justice Joan Lefkowitz, a historian will research the background of the people buried in the cemetery and the eventual fate of their remains. A monument also will be erected “somewhere that’s appropriate to honor the memory of those who had been buried there, near the shopping plaza,” Schick said.
The remainder of the money will go to nonprofit organizations. Spitzer had requested that the funds be used to care for other Jewish cemeteries in Westchester.
“The most important and lasting accomplishment to be achieved from this case is … never again will developers be able again to point to a cemetery in the way of the development and say, ‘Let’s move this,’ ” Schick said. “Any such suggestion will be met with great skepticism and be reviewed with enormous scrutiny.”