Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) was New York City’s third Jewish congregation, formed in 1828 by a group of German, Dutch, and Polish Jews that seceded from B’nai Jeshurun. First meeting in rented quarters on the Lower East Side, in 1849 they built a synagogue on Norfolk Street and by the 1850s were the largest Jewish congregation in the United States. The ability to meet burial needs was crucial for fledgling synagogues to retain their members and attract new congregants; accordingly, Anshe Chesed made acquisition of burial grounds for its congregation a priority. In 1830 they acquired a lot on Sixth Avenue, just north of 45th Street, for their first graveyard; in 1846 they purchased land for a second graveyard on the south side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue.
In the 1850s, both of Anshe Chesed’s Manhattan cemeteries closed to new interments and the congregation acquired new burial grounds at Union Field Cemetery in Queens. By this time their Manhattan graveyards were in poor condition. In 1853, a committee of the congregation’s trustees found four coffins partially uncovered at the 45th Street Cemetery and the fence surrounding the graveyard “in a very bad state.” In 1856, the trustees again alluded to “the poor state of our burial places in [45th] and 89th Street” when suggesting that “removing the corpses from those places to our new cemetery would be a good deed as the would not be disturbed there.” They let the matter drop after making inquiries to rabbinical advisors in London, who instructed them that “removal of the dead from the burial place was prohibited” by Jewish law.
In 1874, Anshe Chesed merged with another group, Adas Jeshurun, to form congregation Beth-El. Following the consolidation, Beth-El trustees decided to finally give up the old Anshe Chesed graveyards on 45th and 89th Streets. Beth-El notified relatives in March of 1875 “that the proper permit from the Health Department had been obtained, and that unless they removed their dead in due time, the Trustees would see to such removal.” Representatives of several families who had relatives interred in the grounds received a temporary injunction to stop the removals, but the courts eventually decided in favor of the trustees.
Remains from the 45th Street cemetery were removed to Union Field Cemetery in May 1875, as reported by The Jewish Messenger:
The work of the exhumation has been conducted with some decorum. Excepting the few graves that, from their location, were recognized by relatives, there was nothing to distinguish the remains that were dug out—the tombstones having been thrown down and piled up against the wall of the adjoining houses—and the bystanders were shocked to see skulls and scattered bones, the sole remains of people who had once lived and moved on earth.
In March 1880, Beth-El proceeded with removing graves still present at the 89th Street cemetery. The New York Herald described the work of exhuming “the Hebrew dead” from the burial ground:
The plot is only 104 by 100 feet, being a portion of the original cemetery, and is almost hidden from view by squalid shanties and squatters’ huts. Within this narrow limit, however, it is estimated that upward of two hundred interments were made; but, owing for the lapse of time (for after 1852 there were no burials) it is not probable that the names of more than one-half of the dead can be ascertained. The graves not marked with tomb stones have been carefully numbered, and where it is impossible to ascertain the names these numbers will mark the remains in their new resting places in Union Fields.
Today, Anshe Chesed’s heritage continues at two Manhattan congregations: Emanu-El, which absorbed Beth-El in 1928, and Ansche Chesed, formed in 1876 by a group that broke off when the original Anshe Chesed became Beth-El in 1874. Anshe Chesed’s 1849 Norfolk Street Synagogue, now the Angel Orensanz Center, is the oldest surviving synagogue in New York City. Americas Tower is now at the site of Anshe Chesed’s 45th Street cemetery; Saint David’s School and other residential and commercial buildings occupy the site of the congregation’s 89th Street graveyard.
Sources: Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York,Vol 6, Pl 97; 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 266, p471-472, Vol 475 p630-632, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Removal of Jewish Cemeteries,” New York Times, March 22, 1875; “Removing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 26, 1875; “A Congregational Controversy,” New York Times, Mar 29, 1875; “The Health Report,” New York Times, Apr 14, 1875; “The Right to a Grave,” New York Tribune, Apr 17, 1875; “Our Gossip,” The Jewish Messenger, May 28, 1875; “Reinterring Jewish Dead,” New York Times, Feb 28, 1880; “Exhuming Hebrew Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 11, 1880; “Temple Beth-El,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 12, 1880; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945), Appendix 8; Anshe Slonim Synagogue (originally Anshe Chesed Synagogue) Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1987); The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996); 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)