With the growth of New York City’s Jewish population and the increase in the number of synagogues, some two dozen Jewish graveyards were established in Manhattan between 1825 and the late 1840s. Most of these cemeteries were used for just a short time before their owners acquired new burial grounds at the large, rural Jewish cemeteries created in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the century, the only Jewish cemeteries left in the city were those belonging to Shearith Israel, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. In 1899, the last of Manhattan’s Jewish graveyards—excluding the Shearith Israel grounds—disappeared when “the old Jewish Cemetery” on 88th Street in Yorkville was removed.
The cemetery originated in 1840, when Shaare Zedek (Gates of Righteousness)—a Polish Jewish congregation founded in 1837—acquired two lots on the south side of 88th Street, between present-day Park and Madison Avenues, as a burial place for their members. In 1842, a group of German Jews formed Rodeph Sholom (Pursuer of Peace) and in October of that same year acquired two lots adjoining Shaare Zedek’s. The conjoined burial grounds formed an 87-foot x 100-foot cemetery that was cooperatively managed by the two synagogues. In 1856, the sister congregations built a high, thick brick wall around the entire property and erected heavy iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance on 88th Street. At the time this enclosure was built to protect the 88th Street cemetery, Rodeph Sholom had discontinued burials here and was interring their dead at their new cemetery in Queens, Union Field. A few years later, Shaare Zedek established Bayside Cemetery in Queens and also ceased burials at the 88th Street cemetery.
By the 1860s, the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery was inactive and soon fell into disrepair. In 1879, a reporter from the New York Times found the brick wall broken and crumbling and observed goats belonging to the neighborhood squatters nibbling the grass and lying on the toppled tombstones that crowded the grounds. Shaare Zedek’s trustees found a buyer for their part of the property in 1881 and made arrangements to remove the bodies, but their plans were defeated by the furious opposition of those with relatives buried there and by Rodeph Sholom’s refusal to sell the adjoining grounds. Finally, in 1899 the two congregations proceeded with the removals and sold their lots. In 1901, The Jewish Messenger announced that William B. Leeds had acquired the 88th Street Jewish cemetery property and planned to erect a private stable on the site. Today, Shaare Zedek and Rodeph Sholom worship at synagogues on the Upper West Side, and a condominium building is at the site of the old 88th Street Jewish Cemetery.
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); Bromley’s 1897 Atlas of the city of New York, Pl 30; New York County Conveyances, Vol 408 p325-327, Vol 1601 p184-185, Vol 430 p153-154, Vol 850 p616-618, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “The Clinton and Henry Street Congregations,” The Asmonean, Aug 22, 1856; “Suicide at a Graveyard,” The World, May 20, 1864; “Suicide,” The Jewish Messenger, May 27, 1864; “An Up-Town Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 7, 1879; “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879; “Selling a Cemetery, The Jewish Messenger, Jun 17, 1881; “Old Graves to be Disturbed,” The Sun, Nov 14, 1892; [No title], The Jewish Messenger, Feb 3, 1899; “Brevities,” The Jewish Messenger, Dec 14, 1900; “Finance and Trade, “ The Jewish Messenger, Apr 26, 1901; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the One Hundred and Twenty-Third Session of the Legislature, Begun Jan 3rd 1900 and Ended April 6th 1900, Chap. 34; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Within the Gates: A Religious, Social and Cultural History 1837-1962 (Monsky 1964); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Our History – Congregation Shaare Zedek; Our History – Congregation Rodeph Sholom