NEW YORK (JTA) — For years, the historic Jewish cemetery was so overgrown with weeds, plagued by toppled headstones, and littered with fallen branches, beer cans and snack-food wrappers that at least a quarter of its graves were impossible to reach.
Even now, after a $140,000 cleanup and improved maintenance procedures, the 35,000-grave cemetery relies on the generosity of a non-Jewish volunteer to repair its tombstones, fences and mausoleums.
The cemetery isn’t in Eastern Europe. It’s the Bayside Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York City, and it’s among countless Jewish cemeteries across the country in varying states of disrepair. Some 40 to 50 of them are in the New York area alone.
There are a plethora of reasons for Jewish cemeteries’ troubles. Many are owned by synagogues, associations or burial societies that no longer exist or are on their last legs. Once a cemetery stops bringing in revenues – i.e. fresh graves — the operating budget dries up unless sufficient money has been set aside for the long term. At Bayside, annual cemetery upkeep costs $90,000.
“Based on current practices, substantially all Jewish cemeteries will be unable to pay for their upkeep within 25 to 50 years after their last grave is sold,” said Gary Katz, president of New York’s Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, a group founded in 2007 and funded largely by UJA-Federation of New York.
While most nonprofit cemeteries are required to put aside a certain percentage of their revenues into endowment funds for the future — ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on the state — most experts say that amount is not enough to ensure a cemetery will remain financially viable. Furthermore, many Jewish cemeteries are registered as religious organizations and wholly exempt from state regulations. At such cemeteries, plot owners have no way of knowing whether the family plot will be maintained two or three generations on.
Mark Stempa, who according to tax filings earned more than $500,000 in 2012 running two large nonprofit Jewish cemeteries in Queens — Mount Zion and Mount Carmel — and is a paid board member of a third, says his cemeteries are approaching capacity and already relying on investment income to cover operations.
“We conservatively invest, and hopefully that income generated from the trust funds is going to care for the cemetery in the future,” he told JTA. But, Stempa acknowledged, “What’s going to happen in 100 years, I really don’t know.”
By the time a cemetery is full, it should have 20 times its annual operating expenses in an endowment, says Stan Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. But few do, he says.
“As the community changes, we’ll have more defaults,” Kaplan said.
In city after city, local Jewish communities – often, as in Bayside’s case, the local federation – are having to step in and put up money to save Jewish burial grounds.