More Ozone Park: Snapshots of Mokom Sholom

In the Jewish community, Mokom Sholom and its sister cemetery Bayside have been embroiled in controversy for several years–I’m not entirely sure what the noise is about, and it would take serious research to get it straight, but what follows is my rough summary of the situation.

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For decades Bayside has been poorly maintained and is now practically virginal forest, choked with weeds, vines and those particularly troublesome large roots that break apart grave markers. Additionally, the cemetery is a consistent target for vandals and in the past several years, has been an ongoing victim of graffiti and grave desecration–mausoleums broken into, caskets smashed, remains scattered–grisly business, right? Complicating the matter is the fact that exposed human remains pose health hazards–certain bacteria, including tetanus, anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox–are hardy enough to remain harmful, even after spending a century underground.

Those with loved ones resting in Bayside blame the Congregation Shaare Zedek, who they say owns and operates the cemetery and diverted “perpetual care” funds to renovate a synagogue and other buildings. Litigation is underway, but representatives from Shaare Zedek say that they are only responsible for ten percent of Bayside’s twelve acres, since over the years,they have sold off portions to burial societies that agreed to handle routine upkeep.

Then there’s Mokom Sholom. In about the 1960’s,  roughly 11,000 children’s headstones went missing. Cemetery reps say that the graves, originally paid for by United Hebrew Charities, were never there, although arial photos taken over a period of decades show this claim to be false.  Mokom Sholom is full, but apparently the rabbis who oversee the cemetery want to dump fresh earth over the now unmarked graves and create new burial plots–a huge theological misstep where Judaism is concerned. These two cemeteries are linked because Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of the Queens vaad harabanim (who is, as far as I can tell, like a Christian bishop over a diocese) expects to inherit Bayside eventually, and he justifies the double-burying in the name of a “good cause”–to pay for Bayside’s repairs.

I had no knowledge of any of this when I climbed the low stone fence on Saturday to check out the sprawling cemetery-cum-forest, teeming with undergrowth and crooked-teeth gravestones, that caught my eye on Thursday’s fateful A-train ride.  I envisioned long hours with a sketchpad and a camera, but Friday’s rain left Saturday’s cemetery damp and muddy. So I snapped a few hurried photos, huddled behind tall markers whenever  I heard a train go by and later, enlisted my trusty iBook to figure out where I’d been–which is how I discovered the woes of Bayside and Mokom Sholom.

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4 thoughts on “More Ozone Park: Snapshots of Mokom Sholom

  1. “Messrs. Editors:
    “Last Sunday I was invited by a resident of this city, a gentleman who takes a pride in showing strangers the various institutions maintained by Israelites, to inspect the Jewish cemeteries. I gladly availed myself of his kindness, as I had heard repeated praise of the excellent manner in which they were kept. Nor was I disappointed, except in one instance, and that was at the Bay Side Cemetery, owned by the Congregation ‘Darech Amono.’ In it I found that a portion of the ground devoted to Family Plots had some pretensions to order and neatness, but the part designated a General Ground was in a most deplorable condition. Rank weeks had grown to the height of two and three feet, entirely obliterating all traces of graves; tombstones are lying scattered in various parts, having I suppose been blown down; no observable pathways, and in most instances not a mark or number to designate the grave.
    “But wretchedly neglected as this part of the ground may be, its condition is immeasurably better than that portion devoted to the ‘Free Burial Society.’ This is virtually a Jewish Potter’s Field. I was assured by my friend that the remains of a large number of poor but worthy Israelites lie interred therein, but there is not even a semblance of a mound to indicate a grave. Surely such a state of things ought not to exist in a civilized community. I do not pretend to say that the congregation is bound to erect tombstones, but I do think that they are bound to see that their ground is kept in good order, that the graves should be clearly defined and numbered; that pathways should be laid out, so that relatives visiting the graves of the departed should be able to reach them in a decorous manner, and not be necessitated to thread their way over unmarked graves. A STRANGER.
    “NEW YORK, September 21st, 1879.”
    “Cemetery Desecration.” Jewish Messenger 46(13). September 26, 1879: 4 col 5.

    “Messrs Editors:
    “I visited last week the cemetery at Bay Side to which a correspondent in your columns referred two weeks ago, but I can not entirely agree with his statements. He forgets that the Free Burial Society has but a limited income. To supply the large number of graves with even plain wooden headstones, would cost, at fifty cents each, too much; and if ‘stakes’ at ten cents each are erected, it would necessitate too large an outlay. Let your correspondent go to the Oliver Street cemetery, or any of the old cemeteries in our city, and see whether the graves are in better condition. The trouble is that people who have friends or relatives in the Free Cemetery are too penurious to give a small sum yearly to keep their graves in fair condition. This is a common custom at all the regular cemeteries, Jewish and Christian, and should all the more be observed at the Free Burial Cemetery, which has to rely on charity for its income. JUSTICE.
    “NEW YORK, October 6th, 1879.”
    “The Cemetery Question.” Jewish Messenger 46(15). October 8, 1879: 5 col 1.

  2. I looked at these pictures and am horrified. A cemetery is a place of repose for deceased individuals…(Hence the term “Laying Them To rest!”) The Misappropriation of Cemetery funds for other purposes is an inexcusable desecration to these Fine Souls that are resting here. I cannot imagine those responsible for this being able to look themselves in the mirror, lay themselves down to sleep at nite, and most of all, Attend Shabbat services(If they do at all). If I had the funds, and was able to do it, In would make these cemeteries do a “Complete 360 degree turn around”. This Greatly disturbs me, and I Thank God for organizations like the HFBA, and others that are working so diligently for these poor souls subjected to this Total Lack Of Respect!
    We all have to answer for our actions one day to God, and I hope that those responsible for this outrage are fully prepared when asked why they did this…

  3. Don’t know if you will see a new comment on an old post. Found your lovely photos googling for Mokom Sholom where I have family buried. Not sure when tides and fortune will take me there to look for myself –or if their headstones are among those still extant, but till then I have your lovely images. Thank you for hopping that wall.

  4. My name is Sally Campbell and my grand parents are buried here, I never knew them but I’m so sick to see this mess of a beautiful peaceful place, there names were Sallie Bogner Geisler and Max Geisler, I wish there was a way to get a picture of there grave

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