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Digging Up More Info About Jewish Cemeteries

Digging Up More Info About Jewish Cemeteries

Hallelujah for local Jewish newspapers, and not just the venerable one that employs yours truly.

The Connecticut Jewish Ledger has a great article this week that thoughtfully fills in many of the holes the mainstream media left in the Ahavath Achim cemetery story that I blogged about last week. In particular, it explains that part of the impetus for the lawsuit (in which board member Maria Balaban is seeking to have a non-Jewish woman’s body exhumed) is that Ahavath Achim — the synagogue and cemetery — is the product of a 1999 merger with an Orthodox synagogue. Part of Balaban’s grievance is that, she claims in the article, the synagogue didn’t follow all the merger agreements. And that in creating an interfaith section, the cemetery had planned to, as she understood it, sell plots only to “non-Jewish spouses, children and grandchildren of Ahavath Achim members, not the general public.”

However, Ahavath Achim’s president (according to the Ledger) says the plan was that while all burials there “would have to follow traditional Jewish customs,” the plots would be offered for purchase to the general public, not only synagogue members.

What’s interesting about this story to me is that it brings together so many of the tensions in modern American Jewish life: what happens when two synagogues (especially of different denominations) merge, an increasingly common occurrence as the number of synagogue-affiliated Jews declines; how do we include and welcome growing numbers of interfaith families without alienating more traditional folks or diluting an institution’s Jewish character; how do we respond to the fact that American Christians appear to be not only less and less anti-Semitic, but increasingly philo-Semitic — so much so that they want to be buried in Jewish cemeteries according to Jewish customs!

Plus, as I noted in my last post: how many American Jews are even opting to make a Jewish cemetery their final (physical at least) home anyway, versus choosing nondenominational cemeteries or cremation?

Another issue at play here: how do Jewish cemeteries sustain themselves financially (do they develop and sell plots to everyone who wants one?) and how do they ensure that the wishes of people buried years ago — and now unable to speak up for themselves — are respected? (On a related note, I hope soon to revisit and report more about Bayside Cemetery, a long-neglected burial ground in Ozone Park, Queens that is the subject of a lengthy, ongoing lawsuit, the inspiration for CAJAC, a group seeking to maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and where, speaking of philo-Semitism, almost nine years ago a group of Mormon volunteers organized a massive cleanup. Whew – sorry for that insanely long sentence! Jewish cemetery buffs should definitely visit it, as it has a rich history, and when last I checked — now, over a year ago, so for what it’s worth — was in better condition than I’d ever seen it before, thanks to CAJAC’s work.)

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