28 June 2010

New York: Oldest congregation preserves cemetery

The oldest Jewish congregation in North America - New York's Shearith Israel in New York City - has presented the first preservation phase of its cemetery on West 21st Street, in use from 1829-51.

The burial site has more than 250 graves of former members of the congregation. Many are unmarked, and were only recently discovered via a ground-penetrating radar survey.

The oldest known grave (1708) is that of Sarah Bueno de Mesquita.

The congregation was founded in 1654 by 23 Sephardic Jews. It houses archival material and artifacts dating back to colonial days and covering American Jewish life since then. It is planning an archive and museum center.

Members of the congregation paid important roles in the American Revolution. It was the only synagogue in New York until 1825, providing all community needs for more than 170 years.

Some famous members included: Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, patriot American religious leader during the American Revolution; Benjamin Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart and Alexander Zuntz, founders of the New York Stock Exchange; Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish flag officer in the US Navy; Emma Lazarus, distinguished American poet; Alice Menken, pioneer in social welfare work; Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, US Supreme Court Justice; Judge Edgar J. Nathan Jr., borough president of Manhattan and New York State Supreme Court Justice; Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, Rabbi of the congregation, founder of the Orthodox Union, Montefiore Hospital and the Lexington School for the Deaf; Reverend Dr. David de Sola Pool, Minister of the congregation, 20th century American Jewish life leading figure.

The cemetery site, about 80 by 120 feet, is also known as the Third Cemetery. There are 67 graves from before 1787; they were moved from the Chatham Square cemetery, the second oldest existing Manhattan cemetery, in use 1682-1831. The 11th Street Cemetery - between Sixth and Seventh Avenues - was used 1805-1830.

The initial phase included conservation and cleaning of tombstones, a ground-penetrating radar study to find unmarked graves, historically sensitive landscaping and new access pathways. Later work will focus on historic metalwork restoration and other items.

Funding for the first phase came from the El Ad Group and 21 LLC Corp. Future phases will cost about $1 million.

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