Who is Responsible for Jewish Cemeteries?
By Andrew E. Schultz
The recent scandal at Staten Island’s United Hebrew Cemetery represents another black eye for the Jewish community. Attorney Timothy Griffin, the cemetery’s president since October 2012, is accused of embezzling funds through a series of unauthorized wire transfers. The malfeasance began mere weeks after Griffin’s predecessor, Ilana Friedman, pled guilty to grand larceny.
How did the cemetery’s board and officers fail to notice significant transfers, all in excess of $250,000, and why was Griffin given carte blanche to effectuate these transfers without anyone else signing off? Although the cemetery’s salaried Board of Directors ultimately discovered the unauthorized transfers, subsequently notifying the New York State Office of the Attorney General, the discovery was made nearly fifteen months after the pattern of embezzlement began.
The time has come for Metropolitan New York’s Jewish communities to accept responsibility for their cemeteries. Similar to established agencies in Boston, Cincinnati, Hartford, and New Haven, the Jewish community of Metropolitan New York must support the creation of a community-based governance of its cemeteries. In each of these communities, numerous individual cemeteries, mostly those previously owned by synagogues and burial societies, were consolidated into a single entity, enabling centralized and charitable community management.
In Metropolitan New York, the implementation of this model is critically important to ensure the well-being of a growing number of “at-risk” cemeteries. Of equal importance is creating a centralized resource – as well as receivership – for burial societies and religious cemeteries in decline. Centralized governance will not only help ensure compliance with best practices, it will serve as a “final address” for struggling cemeteries and burial organizations wishing to cease or transfer administration. In turn, this will remove a burden from many struggling synagogues and organizations, providing confidence chesed shel emet will be preserved.
Most of Metropolitan New York’s Jewish communities have no formal or organized mechanism for administering its dozens of Jewish cemeteries, some of which are incorporated as 501(c)(13) not-for-profits while others are designated “religious.” In both New York and New Jersey, not-for-profit cemeteries are subject to governmental oversight and regulation. As it stands, New York has the most comprehensive cemetery oversight and regulation of all fifty states.
As religious cemeteries face virtually no oversight or regulation, they have no formal standards by which to evaluate the efficiency of their operations and fiscal management. Inevitably, religious cemeteries will exceed the lifespan of their constituents, necessitating that provisions be made to fund the permanent maintenance of their respective burial grounds. To prevent further decline, religious Jewish cemeteries must be governed by an objective set of standards and financial controls, which must be formally adopted by the Jewish community and actualized through the creation of a community-based centralized governance of Jewish cemeteries.
The problem also extends to the burial societies owning plots within cemeteries. Tens of thousands of burial societies and synagogues have sections of graves housed at one or more cemeteries. Although many of these organizations are either defunct or formally dissolved, those still in existence often lack knowledge on cemetery policies and relevant laws pertaining to grave sales and burials.
Many burial societies neglected to create leadership succession plans, forcing less-than-enthusiastic descendants to assume responsibility for the administration of burial plots. In fact, many societies ceased operations when their grave inventories depleted, often failing to surrender burial records to their host cemeteries. In-turn, this continues to create a litany of problems, including graves being double-sold and individuals buried in the wrong graves. This problem is further compounded by societies’ holding deeds to graves unlikely to be used. Particularly in lower New York, which faces a severe shortage of available Jewish gravesites, the reclamation of unused society inventory represents a greater ability to accommodate Jewish burials.
As a not-for-profit cemetery populated with hundreds of burial societies, United Hebrew Cemetery is subject to the jurisdiction of New York State’s Division of Cemeteries, an agency responsible for the oversight of nearly 1800 cemeteries in New York State. Despite the competency of this integral state agency, it is inconceivable one agency can actively discover, in “real-time,” all irregular activity. If regulated cemeteries can slip through the cracks, undoubtedly, the risks to religious cemeteries are far greater. The most recent malfeasance at United Hebrew Cemetery further evidences the need for the Jewish community to assert itself as a watchdog, administrator, and regulator of its cemeteries, first and foremost focusing on those cemeteries currently designated as “religious.”
Community-based centralized governance of Jewish cemeteries, charitably operated by and for the Jewish community, will also mitigate the impact of unscrupulous individuals seeking to poach the remaining resources of struggling cemeteries and societies. Instead, a communal entity would apply revenues and liquidated assets towards to the permanent maintenance, preservation, and necessary repair of burial grounds. Through consolidating independent burial grounds, economies of scale are developed, representing a long-term cost savings to the Jewish community.
The need to preserve cemeteries must fall squarely on the organized Jewish community. We have sophistication and expertise, as is apparent by the numerous successful charitable institutions which, despite the poor economic climate of the past few years, continue to thrive. In turn, under the watchful eye of the Jewish community, we can help increase the prospects for cemetery preservation, enabling us to satisfy the sacred duty of kavod ha-met, caring for and respecting the deceased.
Andrew Schultz is the Executive Director of CAJAC, the Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries