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