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Weeding Out An Eyesore
Julie Wiener - Staff Writer
Beverly Rapiz was one of approximately 300 Mormon volunteers to clean Bayside Cemetery last week.    Photos by Michael Datikash

For years, Beverly Rapiz would walk past Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens, see the tall grass and covered-up headstones and assume the neglected Jewish burial ground had been abandoned.

“It just didn’t look good,” said Rapiz, who lives in nearby East New York, Brooklyn. “We’re supposed to keep our neighborhoods looking nice.”

So when she heard at her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, about a clean-up effort at the cemetery, she was eager to help.

Wearing a white bandana to protect herself from the sun and wielding pruning shears, Rapiz, 63, was one of approximately 300 Mormon volunteers who participated in a church-led cleanup effort that began May 29 and concluded Monday evening.

Over the course of four days (the group stopped on Saturday and Sunday, in respect for the Jewish and Christian Sabbaths), Mormons from as far away as Utah, but mostly from Brooklyn and Queens, pulled weeds and vines, cleared away debris, chopped up fallen trees and branches, and carted everything away in wheelbarrows.

The volunteers were a diverse crew — Latino, black and white. Most were from low-income neighborhoods.

Organized by Shane Wamsley, a Utah man who learned of Bayside’s plight from a Jewish Week article on the Internet, the Mormon project is the largest cleanup effort the cemetery has seen in years.

The 161-year-old burial ground has long suffered from vandalism and neglect. Its owner, Congregation Shaare Zedek, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, says it lacks funds to properly maintain the cemetery. Bayside has only three employees, including the manager who is rarely on the premises and does not assist with the manual labor.

In addition to overgrown weeds, toppled graves and broken fences, the cemetery also has scores of badly damaged mausoleums, 35 of which were discovered recently to be severely desecrated (see sidebar).

Why do Mormons care about a Jewish cemetery?

Wamsley and others involved in the project repeatedly insisted they were there because of their eagerness to provide community service and their belief that all cemeteries are sacred spaces deserving of respect.

“So many people are close to God in this place, as we’re beautifying this I’m sure they’re looking down from heaven and smiling,” said Jose Cordova, the church’s district president, as he helped a group of volunteers unpack several new chainsaws purchased at the church’s expense. “We aren’t doing this for religious purpose or for any gain — just to do something good. Because it’s great to serve.”

Clearing vines and weeds from a plot in the southern section of the cemetery, Martha Tabares of Williamsburg said she has done other community service projects with the church, but this one was particularly meaningful because “a cemetery is a sacred place.”

Pulling away a vine, Tabares pointed to a newly exposed Jewish War Veterans plaque.

“Look at this,” she said, smiling. “We’re bringing a lot of stuff out in the open. Wow. This person is saying, ‘Here I am, I served my country.’

“I think the relatives, when they can see this, it will motivate them to come take care of it. Maybe someone will come bring flowers.”

Tabares, who works at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, added that she liked the idea of sharing a project with the Jewish community, “who we consider our brothers and sisters.”

For Wamsley, whose late wife was born Jewish, the affinity toward Jews is particularly strong. Tall and thin, with intense pale blue eyes, he wears a crystal Star of David that belonged to his wife, and he frequently sprinkles Hebrew terms into his conversations.

Wamsley, an accountant, volunteers as activity chair of the Utah chapter of the International Jewish Genealogical Society, and has assisted Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City with maintaining its cemetery.

Taking a break from chopping up fallen trees on the first afternoon of the cleanup and looking at the many volunteers around him, Wamsley beamed.

“To see these young men working, to see these sisters giving their all, you don’t buy this kind of happiness from the street vendor,” he said.

Some in the Jewish community have expressed misgivings about Wamsley and his coreligionists, fearing their interest in the cemetery is part of a scheme to posthumously baptize the buried or proselytize among the living.

It’s a charge Wamsley and others involved have vigorously denied, and they sent strict orders to volunteers to focus solely on cleaning while in the cemetery (see sidebar).

Daniel Werlin, president of Shaare Zedek, said he was grateful for the Mormons’ help and hopes it motivates the Jewish community to get involved in helping the cemetery.

“It’s amazing how much a group can do over a few days,” he said.

In recent years, the synagogue has sought help from “various Jewish communal organizations,” Werlin said, but “we weren’t able to make a great deal of headway.”

Now, he said, the synagogue will begin a new effort to involve the community in hopes of recruiting both volunteers and raising money to endow the cemetery’s operations. The synagogue is organizing members for a cleanup day on June 22, the congregation’s first such project in more than a year.

Jews were noticeably absent during the Mormon cleanup, despite media coverage of the event in The Jewish Week, The New York Times and on several local television stations — and an open invitation from organizers.

Other than Werlin, only two Shaare Zedek members showed up on the first day of the effort, but neither assisted with cleaning and both left by noon.

Helaine Geismar Katz, associate executive director of the 92nd Street Y, came for several hours on Monday, the last day of the cleanup, accompanied by her cousin, uncle and aunt. Katz’s parents were buried at Bayside in the early 1980s; a mausoleum housing her mother and others was desecrated shortly after.

Although they frequently visit nearby Mount Lebanon Cemetery, the family has not visited Bayside in four years because they felt unsafe there, Katz said.

“A couple of times I came on Sunday and no one was ever in the office,” she said. “I was starting to feel some trepidation. Who knew who was here? If people would come to vandalize, who knew what else they’d do? It was creepy.”

When the family arrived on Monday, their relatives’ headstones were buried under weeds and grass, but by the afternoon, thanks primarily to staff members Bob Martorano and Desmond Cesarsky, who stepped in to help clean, it was completely clear.

Katz’s aunt, Naomi “Scotty” Geismar, said it is “wonderful” that the Mormons were helping the cemetery and expressed surprise that so few Jews showed up.

“I saw two graves here that said, ‘Gone but not forgotten.’ I said to myself, yeah, they’re forgotten all right,” Geismar remarked. “It took the Mormons, and that still didn’t bring out the Jewish community.”

“I don’t understand why,” Katz said. “I don’t blame anyone, I just don’t understand why nobody cares.”

By the end of Monday, as Wamsley packed up his chainsaw and prepared to leave for his flight back to Salt Lake City, the cemetery was considerably clearer than it had been when he started, with thousands of graves newly visible.

Nonetheless, much of the cemetery remains mired in overgrowth, and large swaths continue to look like a rainforest, where fallen headstones are buried under vines, weeds, wildflowers and fallen trees.

Asked how he feels about the Jewish community’s lack of involvement, and in particular the low turnout from Shaare Zedek during the cleanup, Wamsley said he was “discouraged initially.” However, after attending services at the synagogue over Shabbat and meeting some members over lunch, Wamsley said he does “not feel negative toward them.”

“My heart is saddened,” he said. “I’m saddened for those people in the Jewish community, the LDS community and the general community that haven’t come. It’s hard for me to think how they could not come participate. I’m not judging them, I’m just saying oy, we could have had some really good times here.” n

To help with upcoming cleanup efforts, call Shaare Zedek at (212) 874-7005.

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