Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery

Snippet from the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society’s charter and by-Laws, 1914

From the time Jews first settled in colonial New York until well into the 19th century, synagogues had a monopoly on Jewish burials and controlled all the city’s Jewish graveyards. But as New York’s Jewish population grew from a few hundred residents in the 1820s to about 40,000 by mid-century, some new immigrants eschewed the synagogues to form independent groups that provided benefits to their members, including graves and funeral arrangements. One of the first of these was the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society, formed in 1841. The objectives of the Society included “mutual relief of the members thereof, and their families, when in sickness, want, and destitution or distress,” and to acquire “a suitable burial ground” and defray funeral and burial costs for members and their families. Membership was open to any Jewish male between the ages of 21 and 45, who was a resident of New York City and “in full possession of all his mental and physical faculties, and of good character.”

An 1871 map shows the three lots (delineated in red) Mendelssohn Benevolent Society acquired in 1845 on 87th Street, east of Fourth (now Park) Avenue. Only the strip along the eastern edge of the property was used for burials (approximate boundary denoted here by dashed line)

In May of 1845, Mendelssohn Benevolent Society purchased land on the south side of 87th Street, between today’s Park and Lexington Avenues, and used part of this property as the Society’s cemetery. Society members and their families were interred here until 1851 when the Society purchased new burial grounds at Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn. In 1858, the Society sold their property on 87th Street, excluding the “strip of land running along the whole of the easterly side” of the premises, 21.2 feet fronting on 87th Street and 100.8 ½ feet in depth, which was reserved by the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society and their successors “for a burying ground forever.” As part of the transfer, the new owner agreed to build “a good and substantial fence” on the westerly side of the burial ground and “forever keep it in good repair.”

This entry from from one of the city’s Bodies in Transit registers records the removal of remains from Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery to Salem Fields in 1878

Mendelssohn Benevolent Society retained their cemetery on 87th Street until March of 1878 when they removed the remains to their plot at Salem Fields and sold the 21.2 ft x 100.8 ½ ft burial ground property.  Mendelssohn Benevolent Society was still active in 1941 when 400 people attended their 100th-anniversary dinner at the Hotel Astor. However, like the majority of organizations of its kind, the Society declined as members died off and were not replaced by a new generation and is now defunct.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery; arrow denotes approximate location (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 465 p439-440, Vol 762 p621-624, Vol 1445 p407-408, Kings County Conveyances, Vol 285 p178-182, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Charter and By-Laws, 1914; “Group Marks 100th Year,” New York Times, Oct 12, 1941; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

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