June 18, 2024
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Jewish Cemeteries Rescue Group Plans Inaugural Gala

Jewish tradition believes burial grounds are sacred sites which should remain eternally undisturbed, yet there are dozens of Jewish cemeteries in the tri-state area that have significantly deteriorated, many in need of dire restoration. Community Alliance for Jewish-affiliated Cemeteries (CAJAC), a nonprofit organization committed to rescuing these Jewish cemeteries, is inviting the broader Jewish community to its inaugural gala on March 10. The event will be held virtually and will feature a presentation by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi, United Arab Emirates.

Rabbi Andrew Schultz has worked with CAJAC since 2010, first as its Executive Director, then as a board member and recently returning as Executive Director. Rabbi Schultz is a 21-year veteran of professional leadership in the Jewish community and holds numerous community related positions, including Chaplain of the Fair Lawn Police Department. He is also a longstanding member of the Chevra Kadisha and an expert in end-of-life issues related to Jewish burial and cemeteries.

Rabbi Schultz believes CAJAC’s primary mission, which is to assist the living in honoring their departed ancestors who can no longer speak for themselves, encapsulates the fundamental Jewish belief of Kavod Ha-met (showing proper respect for the dead) intrinsic to Jewish law.

While most of the community understands the importance of Kavod Ha-met, few are aware of the issues facing these orphaned cemeteries and consequently the families whose deceased loved ones are buried there. “Prior to the pandemic, volunteerism was an ideal way to spread awareness about the work CAJAC does,” said Rabbi Schultz, who added that most of the organization’s supporters are people who have visited a loved one in a run-down cemetery and were disheartened by its condition. For obvious reasons, cemeteries fly under the radar, he said, and until someone sees the deterioration first-hand, it’s hard to imagine the indignity of the situation.

Since its inception, CAJAC has benefited from the support of UJA-Federation of New York.  In addition to annual funding, UJA has provided support for some of CAJAC’s reclamation projects. One of CAJAC’s earliest and probably most publicized restoration project is the Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens. The cemetery, which was founded in 1865, fell into serious disrepair in the mid-20th century, largely due to extreme neglect and vandalism. Efforts to restore the cemetery were often upended, in part due to red tape surrounding liability and ownership. CAJAC stepped in several years ago and facilitated a major clean-up, an important milestone in restoring the rundown property.

Today the organization is working towards restoring dozens of cemeteries throughout Central New Jersey and New York, many of which were previously owned or operated by synagogues or societies located in remote areas once home to flourishing Jewish communities. Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence in communities that have undergone a shift in population. The organizations that originally intended to maintain these cemeteries no longer exist, necessitating alternative arrangements.

Initially, CAJAC was established to address the decline in Jewish cemeteries almost exclusively through remediation projects aimed at restoring the ruin. Over time, the organization began to question their approach to the problem, concerned that without a sizable endowment or other sources of funding, the clean-up efforts were merely a short term solution.

Most of these cemeteries have little in the way of assets, and if left alone, Rabbi Schultz says they will probably be out of money within twenty years. To address these systemic challenges, CAJAC created a communal governance which allows them to manage individual cemeteries under one umbrella organization. According to Rabbi Schultz, a combined infrastructure provides better resources and proper fiscal management to secure a level of sustainability for the foreseeable future.

In recent years, CAJAC has become the “go to hotline” for cemetery and end of life related issues, offering support, resources and halachic guidance to anyone who reaches out. The organization also provides training to Jewish organizations including synagogues, burial societies and cemetery administrators who manage or operate Jewish cemeteries.

CAJAC founding supporters, Nora and Barry Yood, will be honored at the inaugural event. Barry is a founding CAJAC Board member and currently serves as Vice-President. Both Barry and Nora have held leadership roles in various Jewish organizations and maintain a strong commitment to Jewish life.

“Being part of CAJAC has deepened and enhanced my commitment to Jewish values and identity. Through caring and preserving cemeteries, CAJAC has offered me the opportunity to connect meaningfully with my Jewish heritage and the ability to honor my ancestors with dignity and respect,” said Barry.

At its core, CAJAC addresses a universal concern in the Jewish community; Dignity in death. While most are busy focusing on the living, Rabbi Schultz urges people to recognize the communal responsibility surrounding end of life arrangements. “There will be a point in everyone’s life that you will somehow, in some way, have an interaction with a cemetery,” said Rabbi Schultz. “The knowledge that a loved one is in an honorable resting place only furthers the concept of a Bait Chayim, a house of life, for the eternity of one’s soul.”

To register for the event please go to https://movingjournals.com/journal-ads/cajac/. For more information about CAJAC, please visit www.cajac.org or contact Rabbi Andrew Schultz at 914-574-7057 or by email at [email protected].

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