Every so often we like to point out how preserving and maintaining Jewish heritage, including Jewish cemeteries, is not just a European issue. The Forward runs a story about the difficult situation with the Bayside Jewish cemetery in Queens, NY — it is something of a follow-up to a piece we posted in 2013.
Called Can A Catholic Guy Save This ‘Hellhole’ Jewish Cemetery — (And Why Hasn’t Its Own Synagogue)? the Forward piece, by Ari Feldman, describes a situation — and a person — very familiar in Europe, and particularly east-central Europe: an overgrown, abandoned, and neglected Jewish cemetery and a dedicated gentile who devotes time, energy, and passion to trying to save and preserve it.
In the case of Bayside, a cemetery with around 35,000 graves that was founded in the 1840s, this dedicated person is Anthony Pisciotta, who took over as a volunteer in 2017 after the previous (non-Jewish) caretaker quit saying he had not been paid.
Just about every Sunday, Pisciotta, a Catholic man from the Bronx, romps through the knee-high undergrowth to maintain the parts of the cemetery that get the most foot traffic. He paints, he whacks weeds, he puts metal sheets over the doors and windows of the mausoleums. For over a year, he says, he’s been the only regular groundskeeper the 12-acre cemetery has.
“Every stone has a story. And that’s why I think it’s important that the place be saved and preserved,” said Pisciotta, who is not paid for his work. “Not just for the famous people but the regular people. They were cherished and loved by their families. They shouldn’t have to rest in this hellhole.”
Here’s a video of Bayside cemetery shot at the end of May. It looks very similar to Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
The abandonment of Bayside stems from financial and ownership problems that date back to the 1950s.
A lengthy article in 2002 by Julie Wiener bore the headline “The Cemetery Nobody Wants” and detailed the history of the cemetery — and of its neglect, including episodes of vandalism.
Experts now estimate that clearing it, and repairing fencing, buildings and tombs, would cost as much as $15 million.
Our 2013 post shared a a lengthy JTA report by Wiener titled Lacking Long-term Plans, Many U.S. Jewish Cemeteries in Neglect. “Most Jewish communities,” she wrote, “don’t have any central association to deal with cemeteries, and those that do often have minimal funding or limited purviews.”