Grave Matters


The small Jewish cemetery in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, in the shadow of a century-old department store, is locked most of the time, visited only by prior appointment.

A groundskeeper will be visiting the Congregation Shearith Israel Cemetery on West 21st Street, one of the oldest in the city, in the coming weeks.

Following the discovery last week that a construction project at the adjacent building had caused slight damage to some of the tombstones, the synagogue, New York City’s oldest, will have an archaeologist determine the extent of damage and will make the needed repairs Rabbi Marc Angel said. "As soon as the damage is assessed, we’ll have it done."

Rabbi Angel said preliminary reports indicate that the damage is superficial, probably mortar ("some kind of airborne material") that settled on several gravesites. "It has to be cleaned off."

People are concerned but not alarmed," he said. Elad Properties, which is conducting the redevelopment of the adjacent building into luxury condominiums, set up scaffolding and safety nets at the site last year and removed debris that had fallen onto the grounds. The firm has assumed responsibility for any damage that occurred this year, Rabbi Angel said.

The Chelsea cemetery is the third of four burial grounds under the auspices of Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which was established in 1654. The cemetery opened in 1829, and its last burial was in 1851.

"We have great reverence for these cemeteries," the rabbi said, adding that the congregation last year founded a "1654 Society" to preserve such "treasures" as the cemeteries, the synagogue’s archives and its extension collection of artifacts.