Temple Seeks Cemetery Expansion

Jewish burial laws at odds with town rules governing Adas Israel property
T.E. McMorrow

With almost all of the plots spoken for at its Chevra Kodetia Cemetery just outside of Sag Harbor, Temple Adas Israel is looking to expand the cemetery to neighboring property it purchased three years ago, but it has encountered a number of stumbling blocks including the fact that the East Hampton Town code governing the property may trump Jewish burial laws.

Chevra Kodetia is a small part of the larger 6.3-acre Jewish Cemetery Association land on Route 114, which Temple Adas Israel shares with another Jewish group. “We don’t get along,” Howard Chwatsky, the temple’s treasurer, told the East Hampton Town Planning Board, partly in jest, on April 2. “It’s part of our ethnic history. We’re still fighting.” The temple needs site plan approval from the planning board, but may also need approval from the town zoning board of appeals.

In the 1890s, the cemetery was divided in two, with the temple taking the smaller area. A fence still separates the two sections and there are two separate entrances. The larger cemetery’s lot line was extended in 2011 to include the new acre Temple Adas Israel bought.

Unlike the original cemetery property, the new property is in a water recharge district, where clearing of natural growth is severely restricted.

The town was unaware of the 120-year-old deal that divided the cemetery in two, and thought the added acre was going to the entire cemetery, according to a memo prepared for the planning board by Eric Schantz, a town planner. When first calculating allowable clearing on the new property, he based his conclusions on the larger cemetery acreage. A smaller cemetery would face even more stringent clearing regulations.

A conflict between Jewish burial laws and the town’s regulations regarding cemeteries in water-sensitive areas may be an even bigger problem for the temple. The town says that such cemeteries can only be approved “upon the condition that internment caskets be encased in watertight liners to restrict the entry of body decomposition and embalming chemicals into local ground or surface waters.”

Embalming fluids are prohibited in the Jewish faith; however Jewish law calls for burial in a plain pinewood coffin, according to Rabbi Leon Morris, the temple’s spiritual leader. The body is washed and wrapped in a shroud before being placed in a coffin whose lid is not nailed down. The goal behind the Jewish burial practice is to return the body into the earth, to complete the cycle of life, the rabbi said.

John Jilnicki, the planning board’s attorney, indicated Monday that, besides needing a clearing variance, the temple would have to go before the zoning board to allow burials in a water recharge district.

The temple’s attorney, William B. Anderson, warned the planning board at its April 2 meeting that it must be mindful of the Constitution’s prohibition against passing laws that restrict religious practices. The meeting was focused mainly on the clearing discussion. It also addressed lighting, entrance points to the cemetery, and defining the exact property lines.

“You have a 120-year-old cemetery next door,” Rabbi Morris pointed out. None of that land in the old cemetery is in the water recharge district. “There is no question that, if we had been aware of that demarcation, we never would have purchased the land,” he said.

There is a slight possibility the temple could find a solution in Jewish law if it is turned down by the Z.B.A. Rabbi Morris said that Pennsylvania for many years required all burials be made in “cement vaults.” Jewish burials at that time in Pennsylvania included placing dirt inside the vaults to allow the decomposition prescribed by the Jewish faith. If no solution can be found, he said, “We should look elsewhere.”

The temple has already laid out about half of the purchase price, which was between $225,000 and $250,000, Mr. Chwatsky said, yet it cannot sell plots to buyers. According to him, the temple was never made aware of the difficulties at the time the land was purchased in 2011 or during discussions with the town since then.