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Reclaiming Bayside Cemetery / In the 1865 Jewish graveyard, a diverse group of volunteers fights the insults of man and nature

Clutching her cane with her right hand and her niece's arm

with her left, Sadie Brodow, 92, trudges along the thorny path leading to the

graves of her husband, parents and sisters in Bayside Cemetery. She approaches

the area where they are buried, sits on the beach chair she brought along and

stares into a 6-foot-tall thicket.

Though she cannot see the graves or markers, the Manhattan resident knows

they're there, and she weeps as she whispers her prayers. It is nearly the

Jewish New Year, and she has come to pay her respects.

In another area of the 12-acre cemetery, Rose Feldman, 89, accompanied by

her 63-year-old son, Harvey, treks to her mother's grave, which she has

traveled from Boca Raton, Fla., to visit. Her son, an accountant, kicks away

twigs and stomps down overgrown weeds, smoothing the path to make his mother's

walk less arduous.

For decades, the Ozone Park graveyard, which stretches from Pitkin Avenue

between 80th and 84th Streets to Liberty Avenue, has been a jungle of weeds,

vines and poison ivy with rats and raccoons. Many of the 34,800 graves are

nearly inaccessible and paths impassable. Vandalism also has been a problem.

Congregation Shaare Zedek, an egalitarian, Conservative synagogue in

Manhattan that founded and owns the cemetery, has been unable to finance the

care and upkeep of the cemetery because of a decline in its membership.

"Over the years, Congregation Shaare Zedek has contributed substantial

resources to support this cemetery, but it has become clear that more than

attention from Congregation Shaare Zedek is needed to keep up with the impact

of Mother Nature," says synagogue president Daniel Werlin of Manhattan.

Werlin says although approximately $100,000 of the congregation's budget

has been allocated annually for salaries for cemetery workers (two full-time

caretakers and a manager), $25,000 of which comes from its cemetery fund and

annual dues, the money is insufficient to meet growing expenses.

Despite the barbed-wire fence at the entrance and on the cemetery's

perimeter, vandals repeatedly invade the grounds at night, overturning

monuments, removing, burning or mutilating entombed bodies and bones, stealing

skulls and painting swastikas and graffiti inside the mausoleums.

Voodooists erect altars and fill them with dead chickens and dogs with

their throats slit and steal skulls and valuable fixtures, according to

cemetery workers. The overgrowth has created a den where the vandals can hide

from police and where drug abusers discard needles and syringes.

"It's cults," said Leslie Francisco, 56. "They steal the bones that they

need for their religious practices and leave the rest on the ground."

Francisco declined to specify which cults she meant, but she and her

husband, Ralph, 59, who own the Francisco Funeral Home about a half a mile away

in Ozone Park, have re-entombed the remains of more than 30 skeletons and

boarded up the mausoleums after their bronze or stained-glass doors were stolen.

"We've always viewed the vandalism at Bayside Cemetery as high priority,"

said Kenny Zorn, community affairs officer at 106th Precinct. "Whenever we get

a call, we get four units to surround the place from all sides and notify

Aviation to go in with infrared lights. Because the place is so overgrown,

criminals find it inviting."

That is changing, gravesite by gravesite. On a sunny Sunday in September, a

crew of about 40 volunteers, mostly teenagers, arrives for a cleanup. Dressed

in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the volunteers line up to receive gardening

gloves, hedge cutters and wheelbarrows from attorney Steve Cahn, a Boy Scout

master from Roslyn who is one of the clean-up program's coordinators.

The volunteers venture off to cut up and cart away as many fallen trees and

branches as their three- to four-hour stint will allow before they are

rewarded with pizza and returned home.

The day's team consists of Boy Scouts from Troop 267 in Roslyn, students

from the Solomon Schechter High School in Glen Cove and from the Jewish

Theological Seminary in Manhattan. They are joined by volunteers from

Congregation Shaare Zedek.

Commenting on the condition of the cemetery, Cahn, who has been rolling up

his sleeves there since 1997, accentuates the positive. "It looks much better

now than it did a year ago and far better than it did six years ago," he says,

noting that at least 3,000 graves are now reachable.

That leaves only 31,800 to go. Pondering the daunting task, volunteer Scott

Fryman, 17, of Plainview, a senior at Solomon Schechter says, "The work seems

endless. It will take at least a thousand people a few years to clean it all

up."

But the volunteers love the work and look forward to its spiritual rewards.

"It will help us secure our place in paradise," says Laura Baron, 25, an

office worker from Manhattan.

Other volunteers have included Guardian Angels, city employees, police

officers, Parks Department employees and tree pruners.

The Victorian-style cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish graveyards in the

city, was originally founded in Manhattan in 1850. After a law was passed

prohibiting burials in that borough, the bodies were relocated to the Queens

cemetery, which opened in 1865. It is the final resting place for veterans

since the Civil War, victims of the Titanic, dignitaries, celebrities, renowned

rabbis and people from all walks of life.

The synagogue's mission was to provide a proper and dignified resting place

for the thousands of Jewish immigrants who flocked to this country from

Eastern Europe. Over the years, as many as 67 burial societies cared for the

plots. But with the gradual demise of the burial society administrators, the

cemetery became neglected.

The synagogue hired Ethel Sheiker, a Bayside resident, who managed it for

30 years until 1999, when she retired, but her priority was to the gravesites

with paid perpetual care. With only three assistants, more comprehensive

maintenance was impossible. Sheiker died in 2000.

Although volunteers from schools, churches (including a Mormon church group

from Utah, which learned of the problem on the Internet), synagogues, the YMHA

of Queens, the Eagle Scouts and Boy Scouts have devoted considerable time over

the past two decades, overgrowth has outpaced repair.

"The cemetery is surely both a wellspring of genealogical intrigue and a

source of inspiration," Werlin says, "but unfortunately its historical

attributes, as well as its potential for possibly hundreds of living Jews to

acquire plots in the metropolitan area where Jewish cemeteries are rapidly

approaching full capacity, remains unrealized because of the damage inflicted

upon the cemetery by over 150 years of nature running its course."

The congregation's former spiritual leader, Rabbi Hillel Norry, who served

from 1996 to 2002 and now holds a pulpit at Congregation Shearith Israel in

Atlanta, confirms that because of its declining membership, the synagogue can

no longer afford to finance the cemetery. He said its upkeep should not rest on

the synagogue's shoulders but should be a collective, communal responsibility.

"For more than 100 years, the synagogue served the community at no cost or

at little cost," Norry said. "Now the entire Jewish community, locally and

nationally, needs to pitch in and adopt a slow but steady approach to funding

its future care."

Werlin said a committee has been created to seek solutions, and he urges

the public to participate in the next cleanup on Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Jacob Sheiker, who lives in the neighborhood, is the husband of the former

cemetery manager and a member of the Jewish War Veterans. He knows the

cemetery's dilemma, and as he watched the September cleanup, he said, "There

are not enough people to do what is right for the cemetery and for the people

who are buried there.

"This problem will never be resolved until some philanthropist or agency

comes forward and puts up the money to hire professional people with industrial

equipment and get the job done right on an ongoing basis."

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