Tag Archives: Sephardic cemeteries

Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery / Beth Olam Cemetery

The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olom.
The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olam. (Mary French)

Following the closure of its First, Second and Third cemeteries in Manhattan during the first half of the 19th century, in 1851 Congregation Shearith Israel established a seven-acre cemetery in the Cypress Hills area that straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border.  The Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery is one of three burial grounds that form Beth Olam Cemetery, which is co-owned by Shearith Israel along with two other Manhattan synagogues.  B’nai Jeshurun, NYC’s second-oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1825 by a faction that seceded from Shearith Israel, has a four-acre burial ground within Beth Olam; Shaaray Tefila, an offspring of B’nai Jeshurun that formed in 1845, has two acres.  Beth Olam is located on the west side of Cypress Hills Street, just south of Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the Ridgewood-East New York neighborhoods. About half the property lies in Queens and the other half in Brooklyn.

Several thousand members of Shearith Israel, B’nai Jeshurun, and Shaaray Tefila are interred at Beth Olam, including a number of the congregations’ spiritual leaders. Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1932-1938, is buried in the Shearith Israel cemetery at Beth Olam, as is his uncle and namesake, Benjamin Nathan, a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange whose 1870 murder remains one of the city’s famous unsolved crimes.  Poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” is inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty, is also interred at Beth Olam. The chapel near the entrance to the Shearith Israel section at Beth Olam is the work of Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park. Commissioned in 1882, the small, red brick chapel is the only religious building that Vaux is known to have built.

Location of Beth Olam Cemetery, which includes the Fourth Shearith Israel cemetery and burial grounds of B’nai Jeshurun and Shaaray Tefila (OpenStreetMap)
The divisions of Beth Olam Cemetery in Queens (top) and Brooklyn (bottom), 1905 (Hyde 1905)
Entrance to the Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery at Beth Olam. (Mary French)

View more photos of Beth Olam Cemetery

Sources: Ullitz’s 1898-99 Atlas of the Brooklyn Borough…Vol. 1, Pl. 44; Hyde’s 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 2, Pl. 29; Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol. 4, Pl. 10; Portraits Etched in Stone 141-142 (de Sola Pool, 1952); “Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938),” Judicial Notice 6, Jan 2009, 3-18; “The Criminal Record: The Nathan Murder,” New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 2, 1870; Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux 285 (Francis R. Kowsky 2003); AIA Guide to New York City 779 (White et al 2010); NYCityMap; OpenStreetMap

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Third Shearith Israel Cemetery

West of the Sixth Avenue is a large open space which testifies silently yet strongly to the time when all this part of the island was quiet country side and the city still was very far away.  It is the Jewish graveyard—the Beth Haim, or Place of Rest . . . the Beth Haim was established here—on a lot which possessed the advantages of lying within one of the blocks of the new City Plan and therefore was safe against the opening of new streets, and which also could be reached by an already opened country road.  Although long since superseded by the Beth Haim on Long Island, this graveyard still is cared for zealously—as may be seen by looking from the back windows of the big dry-goods shop on the Sixth Avenue upon its rows of seemly monuments, whereon legends in Hebrew characters tell of “Rest” and “Peace.”  And, truly, looking out from the bustle and clamor of the shop upon the grassy quiet place, with its ivy-clad deadhouse and its long lines of marble gravestones whereof the whiteness has become gray as the years have gone on and on, there is a most pleasant sense of rest and peacefulness amidst this calm serenity of ancient death. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893).

The third cemetery of Congreation Shearith Israel in 1836, on 21st Street, just west of 6th Avenue (Colton 1836)

When Congregation Shearith Israel was forced to close its graveyard in Greenwich Village in 1829, it established a new cemetery in an area even further away from the city center.  The new burial ground had a frontage of 80.5 feet on the south side of 21st Street, about 75 feet west of 6th Avenue.  It was dedicated as Beth Hayim Shelishi (the Third Cemetery) in August 1829 and the first interment took place in November of that year.  A Metaher house, or chapel, (the “ivy-clad deadhouse” mentioned above) was built near the cemetery’s entrance in 1830, but has long since disappeared.

The 21st Street cemetery served as the congregation’s burial ground until 1851, when the city banned burials below 86th Street.  An exception to this prohibition was made in 1855, when remains removed from Congregation Shearith Israel’s graveyard at Chatham Square were reinterred at the 21st Street cemetery.  Today hemmed in by buildings, the cemetery has survived relatively intact and remains the largest of the three Shearith Israel burial grounds in Manhattan.  The congregation is currently in the process of renovating and preserving the cemetery.

The Third Shearith Israel Cemetery in 1852, identified as “Jews Cemetery” (Dripps 1852)
The Third Shearith Israel Cemetery today (NYCityMap)
View of the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery, West 21st Street, Manhattan (Mary French)
Headstones in the 21st Street cemetery (Mary French)

See more photos of the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery.

See recent renovations at the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery.

Sources: Colton’s 1836

Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Portraits Etched in Stone 133-141 (David de Sola Pool 1952); “Down Love Lane,Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 586; “Debris Falls on Historic Jewish Cemetery,” New York Times, June 9, 2006; “Continent’s Oldest Congregation Unveils Plan to Preserve Flatiron Cemetery,” DNAinfo

, June 14, 2010 (includes video of cemetery); NYCityMap

Second Shearith Israel Cemetery

Among the more notable of the remnants of the time when the Greenwich region for the most part was open country are those at the southeast corner of Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue: the little triangular graveyard and the two old framed dwellings which now rest on the lines of the street and the avenue, but which primitively stood—a few feet from their present site—on the now almost obliterated Milligan’s Lane. The triangular graveyard is a remnant of the second Beth Haim, or Place of Rest, owned on this island by the Jews . . . a plot of ground with a front of about fifty feet on Milligan’s Lane, and thence extending, a little east of south, about one hundred and ten feet. In the year 1830, when Eleventh Street was opened on the lines of the City Plan . . . almost the whole of the Jewish burial-ground was swept away. The street went directly across it—leaving only the corner on its south side, and a still smaller corner on its north side. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893)

Present-day location of the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery. Dotted lines represent approximate boundaries before 11th Street was extended through the cemetery in 1830 (NYCityMap)

In 1804, Congregation Shearith Israel purchased land in Greenwich Village to serve as a burial place to supplement its old graveyard near Chatham Square.  The new property, about 50 x 100 feet on Milligan Street,* was dedicated as Beth Haim Shenee (The Second Cemetery) in 1805.  When first established, the new cemetery was used mostly as a burial place for those dying of contagious diseases and for new immigrants who had no family ties to the old graveyard.  When the Chatham Square cemetery fell out of use following city ordinances in the 1820s that prohibited burials in lower Manhattan, the cemetery on Milligan Street became the Congregation’s primary burial ground.  It functioned in this capacity only until 1829—in 1830, 11th Street was extended through the cemetery, leaving just a small remnant of the graveyard intact.  Burials that were in the path of the street were reinterred in this portion of the cemetery, which exists today as a small trianglar plot on the south side of 11th Street, just east of the Avenue of the Americas. A few dozen headstones are still present at the site.

View of Second Shearith Israel Cemetery, 76 West 11th Street, Greenwich Village (Mary French)
Gravestones in the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery (Mary French)

See more photos of the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery.

*According to Old Streets of New York, Milligan Street ran perpendicular to Greenwich Avenue from its present intersection with West 10th Street, through the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, to what is now the south side of 12th Street about 200 feet east of Sixth Avenue. It was obliterated when the city’s grid plan was imposed on the area.

Sources: “Greenwich Village,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 356; Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, 5:1429, 1689; Portraits Etched in Stone 123-133 (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap

First Shearith Israel Cemetery

This small graveyard, on St. James Place near Chatham Square in present-day Chinatown, is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in New York City.  It was used by Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America.  Shearith Israel was formed in 1654 in New Amsterdam by Sephardic Jews from Brazil and was the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825.  The Chatham Square graveyard is known as Shearith Israel’s “first cemetery,” but was actually the second burial ground used by the congregation. In 1656, city authorities granted the Jewish community “a little hook of land situate outside of this city for a burial place.” The location of this original graveyard is unknown today.  The Chatham Square cemetery was founded in 1682 and was expanded in the 1700s so that it once extended from Chatham Square over what is now the upper part of Oliver Street down to Bancker Street (present-day Madison Street).

The Chatham Square cemetery in 1776, shown here as the “Jews Burying Ground” just north of Bankers Street (present-day Madison Street) (Ratzer 1776)
This 1861 lithograph depicts an 18th century view of the cemetery. The “Jews Burying Ground” is “D” at the rear right (Valentine 1861)

Several hundred individuals, including a number of veterans of the American Revolution, were buried at the Chatham Square cemetery before it closed in the early 19th century; the last recorded burial was in 1833.  Development encroached upon the cemetery so that only a small remnant exists today. In 1823, the congregation sold an unused portion of the cemetery frontage on Chatham Square to the Tradesmen’s Bank; additional unused portions on Oliver and Madison Streets were sold in 1829.  A section of the burial ground was taken by the city in 1855 when the New Bowery (today’s St. James Place) was cut through; 256 burials were removed from the graveyard at that time and reinterred in the congregation’s cemeteries on 21st Street and in Brooklyn.

The Chatham Square cemetery in 1855, before the St James Place was cut through the northern portion of the graveyard (Perris 1855)

About a hundred headstones and aboveground tombs can still be seen in what remains of the old graveyard, which lies above street level on the south side of St. James Place.  Congregation Shearith Israel continues to maintain the cemetery, and it also has an annual Memorial Day ceremony at the site in honor of the Revolutionary War veterans buried there.

A view of the Chatham Square cemetery in 1952 (Library of Congress).
Location of the Chatham Square cemetery today (NYCityMap)
Present-day view of the First Shearith Israel Graveyard (Chatham Square Cemetery) at St. James Place (Mary French)

View more photos of the First Shearith Israel Graveyard.

Sources:  Ratzer’s 1776 Plan of the City of New York; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the city of New York 1:Pl.12; 1861 Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1861):521; The Early History of the Jews in New York 75-76The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 4:510, 514, 663; Portraits Etched in Stone (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap