Bayside Cemetery is looking a little bit better every day.
The long-neglected Jewish cemetery in Ozone Park has been the beneficiary of a group of dedicated volunteers that have been working to restore it for the past several months.
The cemetery has been dogged by years of neglect, with overgrown weeds and vines covering cracked headstones that had fallen into disrepair. And worse, vandals had taken to desecrating mausoleums and unearthing human remains.
In 2008, a lawsuit was brought against Congregation Shaare Zedek, the Manhattan synagogue that owns the cemetery, to force it to clean up Bayside, though that suit was dismissed.
But recently, things have been steadily improving at Bayside. An organization called the Committee to Assist Jewish At-risk Cemeteries formed with the idea of turning the cemetery into a respectable-looking burial ground.
The group received a grant from the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York, which was used to hire a landscaper to help refurbish the cemetery grounds.
In addition, volunteers from CAJAC and other organizations have been pitching in over the last several months in an effort to return Bayside to its former pristine glory.
“Bayside was completely under siege; very few parts of it were in good shape before this effort,” said Andrew Schultz, the director of CAJAC.
Schultz said the deterioration of Bayside was not the fault of Congregation Shaare Zedek, which did not have the means to continue its upkeep.
In the early and mid-20th century, he explained, it was common for small communities of Jewish immigrants to set up burial societies and the congregation sold parts of the property to various organizations or individuals that no longer exist, and have long stopped paying upkeep fees for their plots of land.
He said several other Jewish cemeteries in the New York metropolitan area have suffered because of that same reason.
“Grave sales and the number of active burials has declined, so income streams have declined,” Schultz said.
It is CAJAC’s mission that Jewish cemeteries, like Bayside, that have fallen into decline be saved.
Schultz said the work to completely rehabilitate Bayside, located off Liberty Avenue, should be completed by the end of summer 2011.
“The volunteer groups are helping to expedite and buttress the efforts of the professional landscapers,” he said.
Once that happens, CAJAC’s role will be to ensure the long-term maintenance of the cemetery is secured, so that another massive cleanup effort is never again necessary.
“The cemeteries adjacent to Bayside are in good shape, so there’s no reason Bayside can’t be well maintained going forward,” Schultz said.