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Shearith Israel Cemetery

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Oldest Jewish cemetery in New York City

Place Details

Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : Chinatown
Burial Site, Gathering Place

Place Matters Profile


Pat De Angelis

According to information published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, this place is known as the First Cemetery of the congregation of Shearith Israel -- the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. Shearith Israel was founded by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The cemetery was used by the congregation from 1683-1828. T.S. Eliot said somewhere, and I think it's on his gravestone, "Communication with the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." This little cemetery, over 300 years old, speaks to me of the diversity existing here even in the earliest days of colonization. This place matters to me because it has endured, and because it is a remnant of the past that has quietly been respected by the many ethnic groups that have lived in this busy part of downtown. The fact that the burial ground is above street level has perhaps sheltered it from view and harm. It is not a physically beautiful place, but it has much dignity, made all the more appealing by its modesty. The irregular size of the property bespeaks a time before there was a grid plan, before anyone could imagine the future of New York. (August, 2004)

Paula Simmonds

Chatham Square cemetery is the oldest extant Jewish cemetery in America. It was the burial ground for the Colonial era settlers and congregants of Shearith Israel --which was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During this entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to the congregation and were buried there, including 22 who fought in the Revolutionary War, and the first American born Jewish spiritual leader, Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas. The cemetery is a hidden jewel of American and New York history that deserves to be better recognized.

Shearith Israel was founded in 1654 by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The earliest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. was recorded in 1656 in New Amsterdam where Peter Stuyvesant granted the Shearith Israel Congregation "a little hook of land situated outside of this city for a burial place." Its exact location is now unknown. The Congregation's "second" cemetery, which is today known as the FIRST cemetery because it is the oldest surviving one, was purchased in 1683.

Hidden and almost forgotten in lower New York -- the city with the world's largest Jewish population -- lies America's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery -- yet it is mostly a mystery to all who pass by its gates. The cemetery is a rich treasure trove of history, architecture and culture -- with tombstones engraved in the mystical languages of the early Spanish and Portuguese settlers, Ladino and Hebrew. As the oldest surviving burial ground of the first American Jewish settlers-- and some of New York's earliest founders -- it is sacred ground. The settlers and others who are buried there are part of America's founding family, along with the Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers.

Chatham Square cemetery has so many architecturally fascinating grave markers and tombstones. Here is the story of just one. Hidden away in the back of the cemetery, against a tenement wall is the magnificent grave of Dr. Walter Judah -- who died at age 20, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1798 that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 New Yorkers. The grave is a rasied table top made of brownstone and is sorely in need of stabization and restoration at this time. Walter Jonas Judah perished with other Yellow Fever victims, because, unlike most of the middle- and upper-class New Yorkers who fled the city while the yellow fever raged, Walter Judah chose to remain with the ill and minister to their needs.

The Judah family was active in Jewish communal life, especially at Congregation Shearith Israel. At age sixteen, Walter Jonas Judah attended King's College (now Columbia University) and a year later entered the college's medical school.

Medical education and practice were primitive in the colonial era. Most doctors were not trained at a medical school, but rather learned their craft through apprenticeship to a practicing physician, who often combined medical education with training in another field such as barbering, butchering or the clergy. One historian estimated that, by the beginning of the Revolutionary War, only 400 of the 3,500 or so physicians practicing in the American colonies had formal medical degrees, most from European medical schools. The remaining number of American “doctors” learned their craft not through formal learning but through apprenticeship to a barber/doctor or butcher/doctor.

The medical school at King's College was founded in 1767, making it the second oldest medical school in his country (the University of Pennsylvania's, founded two years earlier, is the oldest). Since American colleges were primarily institutions for training Christian clergymen, it was relatively unusual for a Jew to attend one. Walter Jonas Judah was the second identifiable Jew to attend an American medical school and the first native-born Jew to do so.

Until the introduction of modern sewage systems in the late 19th century, epidemics of yellow fever often visited American cities during hot, humid summers. Yellow fever is transmitted through the bite of mosquitoes, which, as Dr. Cohen points out, “breed best in filthy, stagnant water.” The fever-bearing mosquitoes originally arrived in 17th-century America on ships from tropical ports and established themselves in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Even with today's miracle drugs, here is no known cure for yellow fever and the disease proves fatal in half the cases. The seven- to ten-day course of the disease is gruesome, evolving from fever and vomiting to abdominal pain, jaundice (thus the name yellow fever), kidney failure, coma and finally death.

When the epidemic erupted in July of 1798, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the leader of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, urged that a special fund be created to aid the Jewish sick and poor during the crisis. Most of the congregation, apparently including Seixas, fled the city for cooler, drier climes, but Dr. Cohen estimates that at least 10 members of the New York Jewish community perished during the plague. Walter Jonas Judah could have taken refuge but chose instead to stay in New York and -although still a third year medical student- use his knowledge to help the sufferers.

Judah worked tirelessly for days with the afflicted, recommending courses of treatment and medications. For those who could not afford medicines, Judah took money from his own pocket to pay for them in the belief that they would help. In the month of September 1798, an average of 38 New Yorkers per day expired from yellow fever. That same month, the disease felled Judah and he passed away on the 15th. On his tombstone is the following inscription:

In memory of

Walter J. Judah

student of physic who, worn down

by his exertions to alleviate the

sufferings of his fellow citizens

in that dreadful contagion

that visited the City of New York

in 1798, fell a victim to the cause

of humanity on the 5th of Tishri [in the year] 5559. . .

Here lies buried/the unmarried man- /Old in wisdom, tender in years / Skilled he was in his labor, the labor of healing/ Strengthening himself as a lion and running swiftly as a hart to bring healing/ To the inhabitants of this city treating them with loving kindness / When they were visited with the yellow fever / He gave money from his own purse to buy for them beneficent medicines / But the good that he did was the cause of his death / For the fever visited him while yet a youth . . . /

Declare him and his soul happy / May they prepare for him his canopy in Paradise / And there may he have refreshment of soul until the dead live again and the spirit reenter them. (January 2006)

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