Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1860, one of New York City’s Jewish newspapers published the following announcement: 

To the Jewish Congregations in this City – A Burial ground in Williamsburgh, L.I., belonging to one of the Congregations of this city, is to be sold for assessment arrearages. As it is the resting place of a number of departed Israelites, immediate efforts should be made to avert the threatened sale.

The burial ground in question occupied a lot on South Third Street, between Tenth and Eleventh streets (today’s Keap and Hooper streets) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was owned by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim (Gates of Heaven), a group of German Jews that broke off from Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, first meeting for worship in a building on Attorney Street and later having a synagogue on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. Five days after Shaar Hashomayim was incorporated on June 24th, 1839, the congregation purchased the 120 x 25 foot lot in Williamsburg from Abraham Remsen for $400 and subsequently used it as a cemetery. Unpaid assessment notices for the property—denoted as “Jews’ Burying Ground”—appear in Brooklyn newspapers throughout the 1860s, but this issue must have been resolved as Shaar Hashomayim retained ownership of the property.

An 1868 insurance map shows the location of the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery between Tenth (Keap) and Eleventh (Hooper) streets

In 1874, The Jewish Messenger described the “old Hebrew burying ground” on South Third Street, which “has been used by the juveniles of the neighborhood for the past few years as a playground. They have shamefully defaced some of the gravestones, and even carried away several. It is now over 20 years since a burial has been made there, and it seems strange that no one apparently having an interest in this ground ever visits or makes any repairs.” By the 1880s, the cemetery had become “a wilderness of weeds” and “a dumping ground for refuse and filth,” according to reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

An excerpt from the deed for the 1839 purchase of the property by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The disposition of remains from the South Third Street cemetery is unclear, but it’s likely Shaar Hashomayim removed them to burial plots acquired at Cypress Hills Cemetery for remains exhumed in 1875 from another cemetery the congregation owned at 89th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In 1889 Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sold their former burial ground in Williamsburg to Westcott Express Company and the property was redeveloped; today a boutique condominium building is on the site. In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with another Manhattan congregation, Ahawath Chesed; the combined congregation subsequently renamed itself Central Synagogue and continues today at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 82; Brooklyn Land Conveyance Abstracts, Section 8 Block 2424 (Center for Brooklyn History); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 148 p125-126, Vol 298 p262-264, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “To the Jewish Congregations in this City,” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 1, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Tenth Street Opening,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jun 6, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Assessment Notice,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 5, 1864; “Local Items,” The Jewish Messenger, Jul 31, 1874; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “The Aldermen,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 1887; “Cong. Shaar Hashomajim,” The Jewish Messenger, Sep 20, 1889; The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996), Central Synagogue—Our History

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