A Grave Situation

Touro Law Center Rescues Abandoned Central Islip Jewish Cemetery

May 23, 2013

Was it bashert? When Touro Law Center moved to its new building in Central Islip in 2007, no one had any idea that the school, which is under Jewish auspices, was located immediately adjacent to a Jewish cemetery. The property on which the law school was built was formerly part of the Central Islip State Hospital (CISH), one of four giant state mental hospitals (along with Kings Park, Edgewood and Pilgrim State) built in Suffolk County in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.  At its peak in 1955, CISH was the second-largest mental hospital in the nation, housing over 10,000 patients, many drawn from New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods.  By the mid 1970s though, state budget woes and evolving policies for the treatment of the mentally ill led to the gradual closing of the hospital, which shut its door for good in 1996.

What was largely forgotten though, was the potters’ field, where over 5000 inmates had been buried over the 100 years the hospital existed, most forgotten and in paupers’ graves marked only by numbered stones. A portion of the cemetery, with an estimated 500 graves, was set aside for Jewish patients. 

In 1983, Rabbi Melvyn Lerer, then the Jewish Chaplain at CISH (and now the Jewish Chaplain at Pilgrim State), arranged for the reconsecration of the Jewish portion of the cemetery, found funding for restoration, including a fence with a gate with the Star of David, and arranged for dignified burials with proper headstones.  By the mid-90s, though, the few remaining CISH patients had been moved elsewhere, the hospital shut down, and the cemetery was closed.  The state sold off much of the property, to the New York Institute of Technology, the federal government for a courthouse, to the LI Ducks baseball team, for shopping centers, condos, and to Touro.  Responsibility for the cemetery passed to the New York State Office of Mental Health, which fenced it off, restricted public access, and provided minimal maintenance, not much beyond an occasional grass mowing and clean up.  Other than a yearly service arranged by Rabbi Lerer with the congregation of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson, the souls in the cemetery were once again forgotten. Relatives of the deceased were unable to visit their loved ones, and family members could not find details about relatives buried there.  

Shortly after Touro  arrived in Central Islip, we heard stories about the cemetery, and a couple of intrepid explorers made their way through the brambles and discovered a beautiful, serene place hidden from public view, within yards of the Southern State Parkway and the federal courthouse, where thousands of people pass each day having no idea of the history, and tragedy, that lies just beyond the rusted fence.

TouroLaw organized local community groups and the national non-profit Community Association for At-Risk Jewish Cemeteries (CAJAC), and reached an agreement with the State Office of Mental Health to allow Touro to renovate the cemetery, starting with the Jewish portion, build a suitably dignified entrance from Touro property, and assist family members and researchers get access to state records to locate relatives in unmarked graves. The renovations will be funded by a state grant and contributions and through fundraising.

Touro Law is awaiting receipt of grant funding from the state, and hopes to begin renovation work this summer.