by Samuel D. Gruber
The controversy in Spain over the excavation of medieval Jewish cemeteries and the removal of the bones is a serious matter - and one that needs to be addressed. But while some action may set precedents, we can also expect no universal agreement over what actions should be taken, and disagreements are likely to be found within the Jewish community, too. This is nothing new, and it should not be assumed that all Jews have always disapproved of the removal of Jewish bones. We know that in antiquity is was common to gather bones and place them in ossuaries, though scholars disagree on how widespread was this practice, and for how long it was maintained. In recent years, some Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe have been accused of selling off parts of cemeteries for income to maintain other (social and religious) programs.
In my research on 19th-century American synagogues, I came across an 1880s dispute within the congregation of Temple Beth El, which had been joined by Congregation Anchi Chesed in 1873. Two years later a move to sell the now-valuable Manhattan cemetery of Anchi Chesed led to a legal challenge within the newly expanded congregation. The dispute was chronicled in the pages of the New York Times. I am preparing a paper about these and other Jewish cemeteires in Manhattan, in which I hope to be able to tell the full story of the Anchi Chesed - Beth El dispute.
Removal of Jewish CemeteriesOn March 29, 1875 a longer article appeared in the New York Times
(New York Times, March 22, 1875)
A meeting of about twenty members of the Congregation Anchi Chesed was held yesterday morning at the Teutonia Assembly Rooms, to protest against the threatened disinterment of the bodies in the cemeteries in Forty-fifth street and Sixth avenue, and Eighty-ninth street, near Madison avenue. Last week the Congregation of Beth El issued a notice that the Trustees had obtained a permit form the Board of Health for the removal of the bodies to the Union Field Cemetery [a newer cemetery on Long Island]. The members of the Congregation Anchi Chesed are opposed to the measure on the ground that it is contrary to their faith to disturb the bones of the dead, and complain that the only motive of the Congregation Beth-El is to dispose of the land to the highest bidder. The claim of the Congregation Beth-El to the ground is founded in its consolidation with the Anchi Chesed two years ago, when a magnificent temple, costing $250,000 was built for the joint membership. It is now sought to pay off a heavy debt on this structure by the proceeds of the sale of the graveyards. This will be contested by the old members of the Congregation Anchi Chesed, who claim the deeds for the lots stand in their names, and that the other society have no right whatever to them. The grounds are valued at from sixty to eighty thousand dollars. The meeting yesterday was presided over by Mr. Heiman, who stated its object and spoke, in indignant terms of the proposed desecration of the graves of their relatives and friends. After remarks of a like tenor by others, a committee of three was appointed to engage counsel and take other steps to frustrate the plans of the Congregation Beth-El. The meeting was then adjourned until Wednesday evening, to meet at No. 98 Avenue C.
A Congregational Controversy: The Removal of the Jewish Cemeteries - Opposed by the Anchi Chesed, and Favored by the Adas Jeshurun - An Appeal to the Law IntendedFive years later, the matter still seems unresolved, but the disinterment appears to be moving ahead. An article in the Times of February 28, 1880, reads:
A bitter controversy is now going on between the two parties composing the Jewish congregation of Beth El, which now owns the magnificent temple on Lexington Avenue. The Beth-El is an amalgamation of two congregations, that of Anchi Chesed, formerly worshiping in Norfolk Street, and a body formerly worshiping in an edifice in Thirty-ninth street, then called the temple Adas Jeshurun...[a detailed history of the acquisition of the contested cemetery plots and their history follow, and a repetition of the week's earlier article, with a list of Anchi Chesed members likely to take legal action.]
Reinterring Jewish Dead
The Trustees of the Temple Beth-El, Sixty-third-street and Lexington Avenue, recently adopted a resolution to the effect that the remains of the persons now buried in the cemetery at Eighty-ninth-street near Madison avenue, should be disinterred on and after March 8, 1880, and removed to the new Union Fields Cemetery of the congregation, there to be reinterred in an appropriate manner. The old cemetery in Eighty-ninth-street occupies a plot about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide near Madison-avenue, and contains 53 graves with head-stones and a number of others unmarked. The cemetery has not been used for the past 25 years, is overgrown with grass and weeds, and bears a generally neglected appearance. It was originally opened in 1839 by the congregation Anchi Chesed, which in 1852-3 [??] became the Temple Beth-El. The new burial grounds to which the bodies from the old cemetery will be transferred are pleasantly located near the Brooklyn Water-works. D. Kohns, Secretary of the congregation, stated to a TIMES reporter yesterday that the removal of the bodies would be made as expeditiously as possible. Relatives of the deceased who prefer reinterment to be made in their own cemetery plots are expected to give notice of the fact to the Secretary. In case the relatives cannot be ascertained or are too poor to meet the necessary expense of reinterment in a a separate plot, the congregation will provide for them. Mr. Kohns said that the old Eighty-ninth street cemetery has been used only about 15 years, from 1839 to 1855, and that there was consequently very little history connected with it. There will be no ceremonies attending the reinterment.