Feature Stories

Colchester Jewish cemetery dispute settled

On Wednesday, May 16, after the Ledger was printed, the parties involved in the Colchester cemetery dispute settled out of court.  Details of the settlement were not released and will not be available until the Congregation Ahavath Achim board of directors votes on its terms at their June 15 meeting.  Given yesterday’s turn of events, the article below, that appears in this week’s issue of the Ledger, is clearly out of date. However, we believe it sheds light on the issue and the events that transpired and, thus, we include it here in its entirety

 

Ahavath Achim cemetery

NEW LONDON – As the Ledger went to press on Tuesday, May 15 the two parties involved in the legal dispute over an interfaith cemetery owned and managed by Congregation Ahavath Achim were back in New London Judicial District Superior Court after a five-day recess. The plaintiff, Maria Balaban, was scheduled to testify for the first time since she brought a civil suit against the synagogue in early 2011, charging that the synagogue had violated its own bylaws in regard to interfaith burials.
On the morning of May 15, Judge Robert A. Martin met with the attorneys representing the two parties and immediately enjoined them to try to settle the case. In lieu of courtroom hearings, the attorneys spent the morning in private meetings with their respective clients.
Hearings began in January 2012 and resumed after a four-month hiatus on May 9. The week brought emotional testimony by two Colchester attorneys involved in the 1999 merger of the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation into Congregation Ahavath Achim in Colchester. On May 10, Judge Martin adjourned the case until May 15, asking the two parties to resolve the issue in the interim. Since the trial began in January, several Ahavath Achim congregants who are attorneys have stepped forward to try to mediate between the parties.
In the original lawsuit, Balaban asked that the body of Juliet Steer, the first person to be interred in the interfaith cemetery, be exhumed. Balaban is no longer requesting that the body be exhumed. Now, Balaban and her attorney, Martin Rutchick, want the synagogue to agree to three terms: erect an appropriate fence between the Orthodox and interfaith cemeteries, allow non-Jewish burials only of those with family connections to the congregation, and issue a public apology to Balaban for accusations and legal charges of racism. In January, the synagogue’s attorney, George Purtill, filed a motion charging Balaban of making “derogatory comments” about Juliet Steer, who is black. The motion states that defendant Paul Steer is black, as was his deceased sister, and that the plaintiff is white. (Balaban, who grew up in Cuba, identifies as a “Hispanic Jew.”) The final charge in the motion reads, “The Plaintiff’s real motivation in this case is to remove the interred remains of this black woman.” The synagogue is asking Balaban to drop her case.
The 1999 certificate of merger states that no non-Jewish burial may take place in Rows A through H of the Jewish Aid cemetery, or in any other cemetery property belonging to Jewish Aid.
While it is not clear from the language whether an interfaith cemetery would be allowed, the synagogue established one in 2009 on an undeveloped tract of the Jewish Aid cemetery. A June 2009 draft of rules and regulations allowed interment of non-Jewish persons “entitled to be buried with their Jewish spouse and certain other related persons,” and offered plots for purchase to a “member of the Jewish faith” for himself or herself, his or her spouse, parents, children, stepchildren, or grandchildren, without regard to family members’ Jewish identity. The final draft adopted by the board opened up the interfaith burial area as a community cemetery, open to anyone regardless of religion.
Balaban claims that the synagogue board violated its own merger bylaws when it created an interfaith burial ground on Jewish Aid cemetery property and agreed to sell a plot to Juliet Steer in early 2010. When court hearings began In January 2012, Steer’s brother, Paul Steer, told AP reporter Dave Collins that she had chosen the cemetery because it was “a peaceful place.” When asked about his deceased sister’s religious beliefs, Steer said, “She believed in the Jewish religion. We were taught that Jesus was a Jew, and that’s who we worship.”
At the court hearing on May 9, board member and cemetery committee chair Arthur Liverant defended the decision to sell Steer a plot, even though she had no connection to the synagogue. Testifying under questioning from the congregation’s lawyer, George Purtill, he stated, “Juliet Steer told me in our one telephone conversation that her father had told her that her mother was Jewish and he chose never to discuss it again. If she said that her mother was Jewish, it made her Jewish. We buried Juliet Steer appropriately.”
After the hearing, Paul Steer told reporters that his family has always been Christian.
Balaban recalls that, in early 2010, when the board was informed that Juliet Steer had approached the synagogue to request a plot in the interfaith cemetery, “my question was, ‘Is she Jewish?’” Balaban says. “They told me that she claimed her mother, who was dead, told her that her father had some Jewish relatives.”
There is disagreement among synagogue board members as to whether the bylaws pertaining to the interfaith cemetery allow the burial of any non-Jew or only those who have familial ties to a member of Ahavath Achim.
Whatever her faith, Juliet Steer made her own funeral arrangements with a Jewish funeral home, though it is unclear whether or not she was instructed to do so by the synagogue. After she died at Yale New Haven Hospital on Apr. 18, 2010, her body was prepared for burial by a Chevra Kadisha, following the traditional Jewish ritual of Tahara, or purification.
An obituary published in The Hartford Courant on June 23, 2010, cited “church family” among Steer’s survivors and announced a memorial service to be held three days later at the Family Worship Center Church of God of Prophecy in Hartford, which was also receiving donations in Steer’s memory.
Both Rabbi Kenneth Alter and Ahavath Achim president James Seger have declined to comment for this story.

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