New York’s Bukharan Jews find voice in dispute over damaged graves

(New York Jewish Week) — A dispute with a Jewish cemetery in Queens inspires unusual activism in New York’s Bukharan Jewish community.

Community leaders, whose members immigrated from Central Asia, held a rally and backed legislation requiring cemeteries to take responsibility for damaged graves.

The flurry of activity began after a funeral in April 2020 in which workers at Mount Carmel Cemetery damaged an existing grave and then forced the family to foot the bill for repairs. The incident sparked allegations of sinking graves and shoddy care at the historic cemetery, the final resting place of a number of Jewish notables as well as members of the observant Bukharan community and Russian-speaking.

A rally in Glendale, Queens, in August drew dozens of protesters, who are seen in a YouTube video holding signs in English and Russian reading ‘Stop the atrocities’ and ‘Bodies can’t scream’. The rally took place on Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.

Two Queens lawmakers introduced legislation in Albany that would require cemeteries to extend insurance to cover repairs, rather than charging families.

“I think this is the first time in history that the Bukharan Jewish community in New York is able to not only advocate and organize a rally, but also lobby a bill and try to ensure that this is taken care of at the state level,” said Manashe Khaimov. , a history professor at Queens College who studies the history and culture of the Jews of Bukharia.

The current dispute dates back to April 2020, when community members noticed sinking graves, damaged coffins and cracked headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens. At the time, New York-area cemeteries were operating at an unusual pace as they struggled to accommodate the bodies of those who died early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the funeral of a Bukharan woman, cemetery workers using a backhoe to dig a new grave next to her husband’s grave struck the cement container of her husband’s grave, creating holes in its foundation, according to Shabsie Saphirstein, writer for The Queens Jewish Link and other newspapers. The family saw their father’s grave destroyed and then had to pay for the cost of reburial, he said – aggravated trauma because Judaism allows exhumation only in extraordinary circumstances.

“You can only imagine the experience,” Saphirstein said.

Concrete liners are commonly used in graves to prevent them from sinking as coffins decay; they also allow cemeteries to use heavy machinery to dig graves. New York does not require concrete liners and requires cemeteries to waive the requirement when families present a religious objection, as long as they agree to pay for maintenance as the graves s ‘install.

Jewish tradition calls for burials to take place in conditions that allow bodies to decompose naturally, and some Jews choose a perforated liner to facilitate decomposition.

Bukharian activists are concerned that cemetery engineers are not using enough concrete to protect coffins, especially when backhoes are used to dig graves. They want the cemetery to notify family members when damage occurs and pay to have any issues resolved as part of its agreement to provide perpetual care to the graves.

Yuriy Danielov, a Bukharan immigrant who handled community-cemetery relations in his native Uzbekistan, said Mount Carmel continued to postpone meetings to discuss activists. concerns.

“Every week they move the meeting,” says Danielov, whose brother is buried in the cemetery. “After postponing it a third time, they said, ‘Season over. Come next year.

Renate Namias, chief executive of Mount Carmel, offered a different account in an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Over the past two years, cemetery management has met with a small group of Bukharian community representatives regarding specific complaints about cemetery operations,” Namias said.

She noted that backhoes are essential to fulfilling the Jewish tradition of speedy burials. “It is imperative that [a] the backhoe should be used when possible for grave openings to avoid any delays in carrying out burials,” Namias said.

Bill pending in New York State Legislature would require the cemetery to extend insurance to cover repairs, rather than charging families, while increase monitoring of cemeteries and require cemeteries to provide detailed breakdowns of charges. Its sponsors are the Queens Democrats Joseph P. Addabbo in the State Senate and Andrew Hevesi in the State Assembly.

The bill would also require cemeteries with sections designated for certain religions, such as Mount Carmel, to hire an inspector to ensure compliance with that religion’s practices. Cemeteries should also open after-hours if necessary to accommodate the Jewish practice of burying the dead before dusk on the day they died – as long as those asking for the overtime pay the bill as well.

“This legislation will negatively impact all nonprofit and religious cemeteries,” Namias said.

Demonstration at the Bukharia cemetery

Members of the Bukharian Jewish community demand the guarding of Jewish cemeteries during a rally in Glendale, Queens, on August 7, 2022. (KaykovTV, via YouTube)

The problems extend beyond the Bukharan community, whose members largely live in Queens quarters of Forest Hills and Rego Park, as well as Kew Gardens Hills and parts of Brooklyn. When activists began to sound the alarm at Mount Carmel Cemetery, they found common cause with Ashkenazi families who also buried loved ones there.

Notable Jews buried at Mount Carmel include Congresswoman Bella Abzug; the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem; and Leo Frank, who was lynched by an anti-Semitic mob in Georgia after being falsely accused of murder in 1913.

Mount Carmel is not the first Jewish cemetery in New York to be criticized for its maintenance. The synagogue that owns Bayside Cemetery has been the subject of a long-running dispute over conditions at the cemetery, which reportedly did not improve even after the synagogue, Congregation Shaare Zedek, benefited from a multi-million dollar property sale.

The Bukharan community is also considering legal action, Danielov said.

Such a move would mark a watershed moment for the community that began when Jews from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan arrived in New York in the 1960s and grew rapidly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, there are approximately 70,000 Bukharan Jews in the United States, most of whom live in Queens, where Bukharan kosher restaurants offer traditional community cuisine.

Widely practicing and Russian-speaking, the Bukharans, lLike many immigrant communities, they became more active in municipal affairs as their numbers and self-confidence grew. During the pandemic, small Bukharian organizations have come together to form the All Bukharian Community Network, who shared information within the community, provided meals for elderly members of the community, obtained personal protective equipment and communicated with outside organizations and the media.

Now the group is turning its attention to the Mount Carmel cemetery – and other communal issues. “The people we have at ABCN are best suited for this position, and I think with this we will be able to bring more and more change to the community,” Danielov said.

Khaimov said the group’s activities marked a turning point for the Bukharan community in the United States.

“The awareness is where we need to be connected and we need to be educated about the electoral system in America and participate,” Khaimov said. “The way you participate is with your feet and with your hands.”

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