I’ve been crawling around in cemeteries like a worm lately, and delving into the history of my temple’s cemetery committees; their records, doings, procedures.
City historian Mary McTamaney took me on a walk last weekend around Crystal Lake, a largely unknown, well-hidden dammed pond that would make a great starting point for a hike up Snake Hill. She told me to get the Record to investigate some Hasidim and Masons (now, there’s an unholy alliance!) who are trying to get the city to sell them the lake and the area around it for “affordable housing.”
Next day, I went back and took photos.
Because about 5 minutes from the “trailhead” (a little parking area on Temple Avenue; you walk past some concrete barriers, and there’s the lake), off to the left, on a steep, overgrown hill, there is a hundred-year-old, abandoned Jewish cemetery. The most recent stone had the person’s year of death as 1916. Most of the stones that I could read (they were all at least partly in Hebrew; some have some English also) were from the mid- to late-1800s. One, I believe, is the headstone of “Broadway” Sam Levinson’s mother. Broadway Sam Levinson was a merchant on Newburgh’s Broadway for several decades; I remember his thriving store and how he attended all the city council meetings when he headed up the Broadway Businessmen’s Association in the 1950s, when my dad was city manager.
I wanted pictures so I could study the Hebrew on these stones and puzzle out the names. I wanted to pull the prickly plants away from the headstones, yank the weeds and remove the beer bottles and the graffiti from the stone wall surrounding the cemetery. I’ve got to find out how to do that, maybe from the monument company in NewWindsor that Temple Beth Jacob uses to clean graffiti off the headstones at its Big Rock Cemetery.
The question is: Who’s responsible for maintaining an abandoned cemetery in the city? The law in New York state says towns are responsible for abandoned public cemeteries within their borders; but Newburgh is a city, not a town. Also, this is a religious, not a public, cemetery. It may be that my own temple is responsible under the law, or Agudas Achim, the other temple in Newburgh; or maybe even both, if it was a “joint” cemetery.
In my opinion, I’m responsible. Here’s why: there are Jewish graves untended, overgrown, and headstones broken, overturned, and so covered in lichen and moss that the names are barely readable.
And I’m 59 now, and it’s almost Rosh HaShanah.
I called a bunch of people, including the city corporation counsel, three folks from our temple and Mary again, and I visited with our new rabbi. I also alerted my pals Allan Gaul from the Mid-Hudson Times and Doyle Murphy from the Record, hoping they’ll bulldog this til they find some answers.
They say that, to be happy, you need self-respect, someone to love and a project to be working on. If that last bit is true, then I should be practically delirious.