My work with the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA) over the last several years has presented many opportunities to observe sadness, flashes of greatness and inspiration as I review the cases and life stories that come across my desk.
HFBA has a unique mission. For 125 years we have buried indigent, isolated and forgotten Jews who, without our help, would have ended up in a mass grave in Potter's Field or as a cadaver in a medical school. Since 1888 we have buried approximately 60,000 Jews, many dying lonely in their homes or in hospitals, some dying dramatically in well-known tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the epidemic of the Spanish Flu. Over the years, HFBA acquired four cemeteries. The first of these cemeteries was Silver Lake in Staten Island, bought to accommodate the great demand caused by the large number of Eastern European Jews immigrating to the United States from the 1880s until immigration laws were changed in 1924, effectively limiting the numbers of Jews able to come to the goldene medina (golden land) of America. With poverty and disease rampant in the immigrant Lower East Side community at the turn of the 20th century, the six acres of Silver Lake Cemetery were quickly filled with 13,000 graves by 1909. More than half the burials were of babies and children, victims of diseases like diphtheria, pertussis and even starvation, the most insidious disease of the poor.
We are fortunate that volunteer groups help clear debris in Silver Lake Cemetery on a fairly regular basis. Through this commitment, they help lower our maintenance costs and are introduced to the rich history of Jewish immigration to New York City. But this spring, we had the special challenge of preparing for the initial work of restoring Silver Lake Cemetery. HFBA has had the overwhelming task of clearing the ground of all debris accumulated over the past winter as well as other debris which might have remained from previous years. Fortunately, we were connected with the Hillel community at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The cadets were looking for a meaningful community service project, and HFBA was looking for a "few good men." The result was a volunteer army of 11 cadets dedicated to the task of preparing the grounds for the restoration project. These young soldiers were inspiring to say the very least -- marching into the cemetery in formation in their fatigues on a overcast spring morning, surveying the situation in the cemetery and organizing to clear downed trees and other rubble. In four hours they accomplished an incredible amount, unfazed by the weight of the debris they hauled and loaded into the dump truck. And the most remarkable part was that the cadets thanked us for giving them the opportunity to do the work!
The young soldiers of West Point performed the ultimate act of kindness in Judaism -- chesed shel emet, an act of loving kindness which cannot be repaid by the recipient of the act. We at HFBA are grateful to, and salute, our cadets for not only serving their country, but for serving the poorest, almost forgotten members of the Jewish community and preserving their final resting place in sacred ground.
Interested in learning more about the work, mission and history of the Hebrew Free Burial Association? Please visit HebrewFreeBurial.org