New York City Jewish Cemeteries in Turmoil

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Tombstones in Chelsea on West 21st Street

Dead Jewish people are having problems in New York City. Since Judaic law only permits cremation in Reform Judaism, the rest of the Jewish deceased are forced to take refuge in cemeteries. The only problem is that Jewish cemeteries are not quite what they used to be.

Today, some of New York’s Jewish cemeteries have become mismanaged and are in a state of deterioration, leaving the bodies of many Jews, past and present, in limbo. “Judaism, in particular, puts great emphasis on the body after death. The Old Testament says Jews were born from the Earth and Jews have to go back to the Earth,”  said George Bernstein, a retired Jewish historian.

Much of the problem with preserving these cemeteries can be attributed to the slow demise of Jewish burial societies.  Originally started as a way to cut burial costs, Jewish burial societies bought and sold cemetery plots and also held meetings in which families could come together and socialize. Over the years, however, these societies largely disintegrated, leaving only a handful of people in charge of maintaining the plots and burial records.

And it’s not just active cemeteries that are having issues. Even the few Jewish cemeteries that have been preserved as landmarks are running into trouble. The 1654 Society was created in an effort to restore the three landmark cemeteries under Congregation Shearith Israel.

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Manhattan's second oldest cemetery is located on West 11th Street.

Chatham Square Cemetery, located in Chinatown is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in North America. Over time, the cemetery began to fall apart, tombstones disappeared, and graves were left unmarked.

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Chatham Square, the oldest Jewish Cemetery in North America.

Many disturbed plots were moved further uptown to when the third oldest Jewish Cemetery in Manhattan, was purchased. Located on West 21st street between 6th and 7th avenue, this cemetery fell victim to an unfortunate construction accident, in 2006, in which the scaffolding fell off from a site of luxury condos, leaving tombstones in shambles. Three years later, the cemetery still appears to be in dire straits.

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Manhattan's third oldest cemetery on West 21st Street in Chelsea.

“These are centuries-old Jewish cemeteries we’re talking about here, whose tombstones bear extraordinary importance to our religion and our culture,” Sean Glass, a student at NYU who lives in the area, said of the cemetery. He said he was disappointed to see the cemetery’s tombstones “just laying there like left-over’s.”

To the living, the remains of loved ones bears heavy sentimental attachment. “I could never separate from my mother or she from me,” said Holocaust Survivor, Clara Duetsch.

Unless Jewish cemeteries get their act together, the dead are going to have a hard time finding a place to live when they die.

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Two tombstones belonging to a family members resting next to each other in Chelsea.

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