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Central Islip psych center's cemetery to be restored

First-year Touro Law student Anthony Casalaspro, right, places

First-year Touro Law student Anthony Casalaspro, right, places a box of Jewish prayer books damaged during superstorm Sandy into a grave for a traditional burial as Samuel Levine, left, director of Touro Law Center's Jewish Law Institute, left, looks on. (Oct. 13, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

A once closed-off paupers' cemetery for patients at the shuttered Central Islip Psychiatric Center will be restored, a group of religious leaders, state officials and law school executives said Sunday.

The $30,000 project will include new benches, entry gates and security enhancements at the cemetery where more than 5,000 people are buried, said John Allen, special assistant to the state commissioner for the Office of Mental Health.

Restoration has begun in the Jewish section of the cemetery adjacent to the Touro Law Center.

"I think this was just meant to be -- it's divine intervention," Touro Dean Patricia Salkin said. "We didn't even know the cemetery existed and we didn't even know a Jewish cemetery was there."

Costs for restoration are being paid by interest earned from a private endowment fund.

The hospital operated for 107 years, closing in 1996, after which much of the land was sold and public access to the cemetery limited.

At its height, the psychiatric center had 10,000 patients and a campus that stretched nine miles. Many of the patients had few financial resources or lacked family support because of the stigma of mental illness, so they often were buried in the center's cemetery, Allen said.

Most graves are marked only by numbers to protect the identity of patients and families.

In partnership with the state, Touro and the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries will help relatives locate loved ones buried at the site.

"The community is saying, as far as the future goes, we are not forgetting them," said Samuel Levine, director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro.

Rabbi Melvyn Lerer, chaplain at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, was posted to the Central Islip center and fought successfully for some names to be added to the gravestones.

"Whoever lived here had a name," Lerer said about his campaign. "Why deprive them of their name? It's the only asset they have left."

Also Sunday, holy books damaged by flooding after superstorm Sandy were buried in a ceremony at the cemetery. "We're hoping this will be the first of other burials," said Levine, who buried some religious documents related to Passover. "It's often difficult to find a place to bury sacred texts."

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