Rabbis Create Cemetery Task Force


The New York Board of Rabbis has agreed to a union request to help resolve the 11-week-old strike and lockout of 340 cemetery workers at eight area Jewish cemeteries. At the same time, the rabbis said they hoped to resolve longstanding problems their congregants have encountered over the years at cemeteries.

“People are still being buried [by non-union workers], but there are delays and those handling coffins don’t know how to carry them,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, spiritual leader at Congregation Mt. Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and chairman of the board’s newly created cemetery task force. “If your loved one is buried, it is not a pleasant sight."

But Gerald Hass, president of the Cemetery Employer Association of Greater New York, insisted that “we have made every burial on time. I would think the Jewish community would be very happy we were able to do this.”

The Board of Rabbis was asked two weeks ago to get involved in the labor dispute, which began with a strike April 8 by members of Local 365 against Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The next day, seven other Jewish cemeteries locked out their union members.

“I asked the rabbis to see if they could use their good offices to try to get the employers to listen to reason,” said Jack Ryan, president of Local 74, which is merging with Local 365.

At issue, he said, is an industry-wide contract that 80 other cemeteries in the metropolitan area have agreed to. Only the Jewish cemeteries are balking, said Ryan.

He said the issues in contention involve retroactive pay, differential pay and benefits. The next round of talks, he said, would be attended by a representative of the Board of Rabbis.

But Hass said no new negotiating session had been set up and he had “no comment” when asked if he objected to the Board of Rabbis’ presence. Hass also declined to discuss the issues, saying “nothing is gained by negotiating in the press.”

He said that “thousands and thousands of dollars in damage” occurred in the first days of the strike when headstones were knocked over, memorial stones thrown into open graves and society posts overturned.

Ryan said one of his members was shot in the back and another “stabbed by a scab.”

Rabbi Potasnik said that once the labor dispute is resolved, he planned to have the task force, composed of rabbis and laity, address other issues of concern.

The executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, said the organization decided to set up the task force because it is “deeply concerned about the welfare of bereaved families. And there is a broader issue here about the way cemeteries conduct themselves, dealing with issues of Jewish values, dignity and sensitivity to the bereaved.”

Rabbi Potasnik said that among the major complaints are that graves go untended even though families have paid for annual or perpetual care; and that families coming for a funeral are forced to sit in their cars while grave diggers eat lunch.

David Jacobson, executive director of United Hebrew Community of New York, the largest Jewish burial society in the United States, said that weather and equipment problems could affect care. But he insisted that graves are generally tended at least four times a year if they are to receive perpetual or annual care. He said that all graves are to be tended to at least once a year.