STATEN ISLAND Here, under a blanket of leaves and bramble, lie the impoverished and the forgotten: Jews whose families could not or would not give them the gift of a final resting place.
From 189′ to 1909, the Hebrew Free Burial Association’s Silver Lake Cemetery was the ultimate address for a hodgepodge of immigrants, among them ‘1 young victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, soldiers who lost their lives in the Spanish-American War, the parents of Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, inmates from Riker’s Island, and Russian poets Victor Ourin and Aaron Kuperstock.
Sam Kaminetzky of Teaneck and Avi Krupman of Spring Valley, N.Y., were among the RYNJ students who cleaned up at Silver Lake Cemetery.
Most of the eighth-grade boys who came here from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey last month probably did not recognize any of these names. But they knew that by wielding their rakes, they were doing the highest level of chesed (kindness).
"We try to do chesed all the time, but when it’s for those who’ve passed away it’s called chesed shel emes [true kindness] because it cannot be returned," said Rabbi David Kaminetsky, associate principal.
The Hebrew Free Burial Association owns and operates two cemeteries, both on Staten Island, for ensuring that every Jew is provided with a proper burial regardless of affiliation and financial situation, said Andrew Parver, the organization’s director of education and outreach. Silver Lake often went neglected because all available funds went toward burying indigent Jews at Mount Richmond Cemetery, which has been in use since 1909.
HFBA, the largest free burial society outside of Israel, has contacts at city and social service agencies who notify staffers about Jewish decedents who would not otherwise receive a prompt, dignified Jewish funeral and burial. In the early years of the organization’s existence, most burials were of small children. Over the last decade, many of its clients have been from the Russian Jewish community and were elderly or ill when they arrived in the United States.
"We bury, on average, ’50 to 300 people per year," said Parver. "At our newer cemetery we have some maintenance staff. At Silver Lake, we have someone to mow the lawn but there is no full-time staff and it’s locked most of the time. Every penny we save is a penny we can use to bury somebody. So we actively recruit volunteer groups from schools and shuls. This school year we’ve had nine groups and I hope to get at least that many in the spring as well."
A group of families from Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield did a cleanup in October. Ari and Sharon Weider of Teaneck brought along their children Tova, 11, and twins Yaakov and Akiva, 8.
"We explained to our children that helping clean up the cemetery was a true act of chesed shel emet because the people who were buried there could not ‘pay us back’ by doing something nice for us in return," said Ari Weider. "We also explained to them that it was very important because most of the people buried in the cemetery died a long time ago and there were no relatives to keep the cemetery clean."
Indeed, confirmed Parver, about 90 percent of those buried at Silver Lake have no living relatives. "The people who are buried there represent the beginning of immigration to the New York City area," he said. "These are the people who through their sacrifices helped Judaism in America to flourish. The volunteers acknowledge that sacrifice."
Weider said he was especially touched by the realization that many of those buried at Silver Lake were very young children "who may well have died so young because of the lack of proper medical care and basic hygienic conditions, and how fortunate we are that society has made such improvements in these areas so that such tragedies are much less frequent today."
Kaminetsky found that the 50 eighth-graders who participated were visibly moved. "Some of the kids, believe it or not, had never visited a cemetery. It removed the mystique of a cemetery and they saw that these poor Jews who died, left forgotten, are being remembered now. They boasted about how many bags of leaves they collected they enjoyed the physical work but many also were sensitized by the experience. On bus ride home, they were truly mellow."
Other recent volunteer groups from North Jersey included Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and Yavneh Academy of Paramus.