Beneath overcast skies Sunday, a group of more than a dozen Jewish Long Islanders visited an often-overlooked 16-acre site on Eastview Avenue in Central Islip to pray together.
The property is the final resting place for more than 5,500 patients of the shuttered Central Islip Psychiatric Center — a potter’s field for forgotten residents of the hospital and a cemetery that itself was nearly lost to time.
“It’s a place where individuals who had no one to care for them, no one who thought about them, no one to fund their burials, were buried without much thought, without much care,” said Samuel Levine, a professor of law at neighboring Touro University and director of the Jewish Law Center there.
Levine, a rabbi, helped lead prayers inside a section of the cemetery where an estimated 500 Jewish residents of the state-run facility were buried. About 100 of them rest at marked sites, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Melvyn Lerer, who as Jewish chaplain at the hospital, lobbied for personalized burial sites for the deceased during the final two decades before the facility closed in 1996. About 5,000 more former patients are buried in the larger nondenominational portion of the cemetery under stone markers featuring only a number. A handful of headstones have been placed at the site under unknown circumstances.
Most attendees of Sunday’s service were members of the North Shore Jewish Center of Port Jefferson Station's men's club, which since 1991 has visited annually to recite kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Despite the efforts of the club and Lerer to remember the patients, the property fell into disrepair by the early 2000s.
“I never knew this was here,” Levine recalled of his first months at Touro in 2010. “It didn't really look like a cemetery. It didn't look like anything.”
After exploring the overgrown property and discovering the cemetery, Levine reached out to the state’s Office of Mental Health, which ran the hospital and has funded the site’s cleanup in recent years.
Early restoration included the removal of discarded liquor bottles and graffiti. More recent work included removing brush to make the cemetery visible from Eastview Drive and from the campus, along with the installation last spring of a plaque and a standalone marker.
The site was rededicated in June and is now behind a locked gate protecting it from further vandalism. Levine said a future goal is to remove the locks and reclaim it as a public place of reflection.
This year’s service also took on a deeper meaning three weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, noted Robert Benson, president of the North Shore Jewish Center, adding that it’s a time for people of all Jewish practices to come together.
“It’s a chance for us to come across the aisle, so to speak, of Judaism,” Benson said. “… We should all feel like we’re brothers and sisters here.”
Newsday has reported that the Central Islip hospital housed, at its peak in the early 1960s, as many as 12,000 patients.