Thousands of former patients buried in the cemetery of a now-shuttered psychiatric facility in Central Islip — sometimes forgotten by society during their lives — were remembered on a warm Sunday morning with a small annual Jewish prayer service paying tribute to their memory.
“Because of you, they’re gone but they’re not — never — forgotten,” Rabbi Melvyn Lerer told a handful of attendees, many of which were from the North Shore Jewish Center Men’s Club in Port Jefferson, which partnered with Lerer in conducting the annual prayer service dating back to 1991. He then led them in reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the dead, on the quiet grounds of the former Central Islip State Hospital Cemetery.
Efforts have been made in recent years to restore the cemetery — the resting place for roughly 5,500 patients of the former state hospital, including 500 Jewish patients in a separate portion of the graveyard. Some of those who were treated and eventually buried there included Holocaust survivors and war veterans who were admitted due to mental problems caused by trauma, according to Samuel J. Levine, director of the Jewish Law Institute and professor of law at the Touro Law Center.
“Every day, thousands of people drive by and have no idea what they’re passing, as far as they’re concerned … and they have no idea of the history. There are tens of thousands who were in psychiatric hospitals in Central Islip,” Levine said.
The Central Islip Psychiatric facility, which once housed up to 12,000 patients, closed its doors in 1996, its last patients transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. In the 1970s prior to its closing, Lerer convinced hospital officials to set aside two acres for Jewish patients to be buried upon, as some patients were interred at the center’s cemetery due to their lack of financial resources or family support.
The overall cemetery had fallen into disrepair over time, but fundraising efforts are ongoing for restoration, according to Levine. The money would go toward installing benches and replacing the fence around the cemetery, as well as for a plaque and a marker from New York State to pay tribute to those buried on the resting grounds.
“Jewish tradition and other traditions emphasize not forgetting people when they’re alive and certainly after they’re gone, and these were people who were forgotten when they were alive. They were kept out of sight and out of mind in horrible ways from the stories that we hear about the conditions that they lived in. So we’re dedicated to the commitment that we’re not going to forget them, we’re going to remember them as best as we can,” Levine said.
Benjamin Etkin, president of the North Shore Jewish Center Men’s Club, said afterward that it was “a really great thing” to honor the patients who were buried there, including those whose gravestones only had a number and not their names.
“They have no one. So it’s really touching, not just for the Jewish folks, but for all the nameless folks out here … People didn’t view mental health back then in an enlightened way, and it’s a shame, but hopefully, we’re doing something about that,” Etkin said.