By David Brand @D4V1DBR4ND
Queens Daily Eagle
For years, Bayside Cemetery has rotted and crumbled, doomed by a decades-long mix of neglect, theft and vandalism. The cemetery’s owner, Congregation Shaare Zedek, has been unable to maintain the grounds and unwilling to commit the money that experts say is needed to address the biggest problems.
The 12-acre burial ground wedged between Pitkin Ave. and Liberty Ave. in Ozone Park was founded in 1865 and serves as the final resting place for roughly 35,000 people. Today, their descendants must maneuver through overgrown plots, toppled gravestones and teetering monuments to find their loved ones.
“It’s my parents, and I can’t give them respect, ” Helaine Geismar Katz, whose great grandparents and grandparents rest in a dilapidated mausoleum, told ABC7. “They’re not cared for here [and] I blame the synagogue.”
Last week, an investigation by ABC7 highlighted the extent of the cemetery’s deterioration — several dilapidated mausoleums have been sealed with cement and thousands of damaged headstones stand with evident damage or lay scattered in pieces on the grass. An untold number of monuments are submerged beneath plants and soil.
Conditions were supposed to improve once Congregation Shaare Zedek, which owns the cemetery, sold its Manhattan synagogue for $34 million in July 2017. Shaare Zedek said it would use a portion of the proceeds to repair Bayside Jewish Cemetery.
But as photos taken by the Queens Daily Eagle reveal, Shaare Zedek has just begun working on the site. Plants overwhelm the majority of the site, including trees that have grown around headstones. Monuments lay flat on the dirt.
Though the cemetery has received renewed attention, the deplorable conditions have persisted for generations.
“[At] Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising — exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites,” the website Abandoned NYC wrote in a 2012 piece about cemetery conditions over the past several decades. “Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion. Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinder blocks and boards.”
In March 2011, Council Member Eric Ulrich, who represents Ozone Park, toured “the desecration” at the cemetery.
“Graffiti vandals have no shame,” Ulrich wrote on Twitter.
The problems extend much deeper into the past.
In 2015, the Queens Chronicle described the history of vandalism and grave-robbing that began in the early 20th Century.
Back then, the Chronicle reported, thieves would crack open mausoleums and steal valuables. After the graves had been picked clean, the would-be thieves would instead smash headstones and desecrate corpses
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the appalling conditions of the cemetery force all New Yorkers to consider the treatment of the deceased.
“It should be a concern to all people because it’s about respect for the dead,” Potasnik told the Queens Daily Eagle. “We talk about respect for the living but respect for the dead is equally important and we need to correct it.”
“It’s shameful and it’s unfortunate and it has been neglected,” Potasnik continued. “They’re making it better, but it’s such an uphill battle and it requires significant funds.”
Ozone Park resident Anthony Pisciotta told ABC7 that he has volunteered thousands of hours trying to stem the deterioration and rehabilitate the burial grounds, but his hard work has not reversed the cemetery’s downward spiral.
“It’s really like a garbage dump,” Pisciotta told ABC7. “You can’t bring anybody in here now.”
Pisciotta, a history buff, first began working at the cemetery in the 1980s when he read an article about the vandalism and decay it experienced, the Queens Chronicle reported in 2015. Pisciotta said many veterans are interred on the grounds, including individuals who fought in the Confederate and Union Armies during the Civil War.
The cemetery also hosts the remains of a man who died on the Titanic, two victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with galvanized the workers’ rights movements and US Rep. Lester Volk, who died in 1962.
As of press time, Congregation Shaare Zedek did not respond to request for comment from the Queens Daily Eagle.
In a statement to ABC7, congregation President Michael Firestone said that the Shaare Zedek administration did not want to commit to a long-term rehabilitation project until they had secured all proceeds from the sale. So far, Shaare Zedek has only received $1.6 million from the developer that purchased its Manhattan site.
“We were reluctant to begin projects that we were uncertain we would be able to complete without full payment from the developer,” Firestone told ABC7, adding that Shaare Zedek has allocated $8 million from the final sale to improve cemetery conditions as per an agreement with the State Attorney General.
Firestone said Shaare Zedek has signed contracts worth $300,000 with landscaping firms that began work in mid-June.
In another statement, Shaare Zedek said the delayed sale has impeded their rehabilitation plans.
“Although we had hoped to begin work as soon as possible after receiving court approval in July 2017, circumstances ultimately dictated a more conservative path,” Shaare Zedek said in a statement. “We are continuing to work closely with our selected project managers to evaluate projects and review bids and look forward to significant progress at Bayside Cemetery in the coming months.”
Jamie Cotel, the executive director of the Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries, said the $8 million mandated by the Attorney General would address only the “emergency needs of the cemetery.” Since 2009, CAJAC has advised and raised money to rehabilitate Jewish cemeteries, including Bayside Cemetery.
Cotel said CAJAC stopped bringing volunteers in the cemetery to clean and address overgrowth more than a year and a half ago. The conditions were too dangerous, she said.
Cotel said CAJAC would like Shaare Zedek to forego trying to run the cemetery and instead turn it over to a separate entity with a community board that would oversee the grounds in perpetuity
“The cemetery needs a steward who will look after it for the next 100 years,” Cotel continued. “Otherwise you’re just chasing your tail.”