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Shul Silent On Cemetery Database

Shul Silent On Cemetery Database

For a year and a half, Shane Wamsley returned to his Salt Lake City home from his day job as a financial controller and began another one: eight hours of data entry at his computer. On weekends, he’d log even longer hours.

Wamsley, working as a volunteer, was compiling a database of burial records for Bayside Cemetery, which dates back to 1842 and has approximately 35,000 graves.

His hope (part of a "four-point plan" for improving the Queens Jewish burial ground, much of which is overgrown with weeds and poison oak) is to publish the database on the Internet as a service to historians and Jewish genealogists with ancestors buried there. Genealogists say the database would be a valuable resource, one even terming it "unbelievable."

However, Congregation Shaare Zedek, the Upper West Side synagogue that owns the cemetery, is ignoring Wamsley’s request for permission to upload the data, even though he said the immediate past president agreed to the idea back in 2003. Officials of the Conservative synagogue aren’t offering any explanations.

Rabbi Mark Ankcorn has not responded to Wamsley’s numerous phone calls and e-mail messages over a nearly five-month span.

The rabbi did not return repeated phone calls from The Jewish Week seeking an explanation, nor did Shaare Zedek president Joel Shaiman.

"A lot of families are very concerned and would like to bring closure to their ancestors’ passing," Wamsley said. "[Shaare Zedek’s leaders] have an obligation to the people buried there as well as the families of the people buried there."

Stan Boskoff of Garden City Park, L.I., who has ancestors buried at Bayside, said Shaare Zedek’s lack of responsiveness to Wamsley is "upsetting and disappointing and a little disturbing."

Boskoff discovered last summer that his great-great-grandparents were buried at Bayside, and he said that the cemetery’s caretaker, Bob Martorano, suggested he call Wamsley, who helped him delve deeper into his family history.

Wamsley will "do anything he can for complete strangers, and he’s not doing it for money," Boskoff said, adding that "he understands how important it is for people to be able to learn something about their past and how difficult that is."

Not releasing Wamsley’s database "would be a disservice to people like me who are ignorant of their past and might be able to have some light shined upon it," Boskoff said.

Wamsley, 47, a Utah Mormon, is a somewhat unlikely champion for this long troubled cemetery in Ozone Park. In the spring of 2003 (after reading a Jewish Week article describing the rampant vandalism, toppled headstones and other problems at Bayside) he organized a major cleanup effort.

Over the course of four days, Wamsley mobilized approximately 300 volunteers, most of them Mormons from low-income neighborhoods, to clear weeds and vines, remove garbage and generally try to make the cemetery (much of which resembled a rainforest) accessible to visitors.

Wamsley’s cleanup coincided with another volunteer effort, facilitated by City Councilman Joseph Addabbo and local funeral directors Leslie and Ralph Francisco, to repair the 35 badly vandalized mausoleums at the cemetery. That project was not completed, however, because the volunteers became disgruntled by Shaare Zedek’s failure to cooperate.

"It was disheartening to see the lack of effort on the other side," recalled Addabbo.

The city councilman, who represents the district in which Bayside is located, said there have been no community complaints about the cemetery recently, but that he is "holding my breath because around this time of year vandalism often occurs."

The 2003 cleanup did not solve all the cemetery’s woes, but was a major improvement. Since then, the cemetery’s small staff has managed to maintain most of the area that was cleaned. However, large swaths of the cemetery, particularly toward the back, remain overgrown and inaccessible, and many headstones are still damaged.

Interviewed about the situation in ’03, Shaare Zedek officials repeatedly said they lacked the financial resources to clean and maintain the cemetery, and had tried unsuccessfully to get broader Jewish communal support for it.

Some Jews have been suspicious of Wamsley’s interest in the cemetery, citing concerns that he might be interested in conducting posthumous baptisms of the Jews buried there, a controversial practice that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned in 1995.

Wamsley has denied repeatedly that he has any plans to engage in posthumous baptism, and he reiterated his position again last week when questioned by The Jewish Week about the baptisms.

Instead, Wamsley has said he feels a special affinity toward the Jewish people for religious reasons and because his late wife was born Jewish.

Wamsley is an active member of the Utah branch of the International Jewish Genealogical Society and has helped Salt Lake City synagogues maintain their cemeteries.

Many Jews with ancestors buried at Bayside speak highly of Wamsley, noting that he has helped them with genealogical research.

"Shane is a very nice man and it’s a wonderful mitzvah he did," said Eden Joachim, a volunteer with the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York, whose great-grandparents are buried at Bayside.

Joachim said she is eager to see the database Wamsley has compiled "made available to the greater population.

"Wamsley’s efforts come as JewishGen, a Web resource for Jewish genealogical researchers, is seeking contributions to an "Online Worldwide Burial Registry." So far the database includes information from 1,102 cemeteries, and organizers are seeking Jewish groups to "adopt" cemeteries and submit burial records from them.

Florence Marmor, who has relatives buried at Bayside and the adjacent cemetery, Mokom Sholom, is compiling burial records from Mokom Sholom and would like to combine them with Wamsley’s database. Asked whether Wamsley’s information would be useful to other researchers, Marmor said, "It would be unbelievable."

"There are Civil War veterans buried there," Marmor said. "Both Bayside and Mokom Sholom go back to the 1860s, and there is unbelievable historical information in those cemeteries.

"But while a growing number of cemeteries now have databases of their burial records, it is still relatively rare to post them on the Internet.

Robert Friedman, director of genealogy at the Center for Jewish History, said that while it’s "fabulous for researchers" to have access to burial records on the Web, cemeteries are often reluctant to post them, sometimes because they want to protect the privacy of families with members buried there and sometimes for proprietary reasons: they want researchers to contact the cemetery directly to request information and perhaps make a donation.

Joachim said there is a debate within the Jewish genealogical community over the ethics of publicizing records on the Web. While many people want the greatest amount of access possible, others want to protect privacy.

Wamsley argues that Shaare Zedek posting its burial records on the Web might help raise badly needed funds to maintain the cemetery and bring Bayside to the attention of "people who have family buried there and may be interested in paying into the perpetual care fund."

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