Ceremony to honor 17th century Jewish cemetery

The sound of Taps will resound over a small triangular cemetery on St. James Pl. just south of Chatham Sq. on Sunday morning, May 18 when members of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and Downtown neighbors pay tribute to congregation members who served their country in wars from the American Revolution to Iraq.

The cemetery was the resting place of members of the first Jewish congregation in the city, founded in 1654 by a group of Spanish Jews who came to New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil.

“This year, we’re honoring a grandson of a member, Marine Corporal Mark Evnin, who died in battle in Iraq. He was 19,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, chief rabbi at Shearith Israel for the past 33 years.

The St James Pl. burial ground, which served the congregation’s first synagogue on Mill St. (now S. William St.), was larger back in the 1650s but as New Amsterdam grew, the cemetery got smaller. “We have records going back to 1656 and as the cemetery got smaller, the graves were moved. There’s been lots of research but we don’t know exactly where it all was,” Angel said.

The plot was high ground during the American Revolution – it is above the sidewalk level on St. James Pl. today – and Washington’s forces held out there before retreating to the north.

The stretch of St. James Pl. in front of the cemetery has a secondary name, Walter Judah St., named for a member of the congregation who as a 20-year-old stayed in the yellow fever-ridded city in 1793 to take care of the sick when most others had fled.

Over the years, the congregation moved its cemetery; to W. 11th St. off Sixth Ave. where a remnant of the second cemetery still exists, then to W. 21st St. where the congregation’s third cemetery is located. In 1850, the cemetery moved to Cypress Hills in New Jersey.

The synagogue itself also moved as the city changed. There were two buildings on Mill St., and the congregation moved to Crosby St. in 1834. Then in 1860, members built a new house of worship on Fifth Ave. at 19th St. The present building, a stately edifice on Central Park West at 70th St., was built in 1897.

“The ceremony at the first cemetery has been a tradition ever since the 19th century when Memorial Day was established,” said Angel. “It used to be on Memorial Day, but when people began going out of town for the weekend, it was moved to a week or two before the holiday,” the rabbi said.

— Albert Amateau


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