By Cindy Mindell
COLCHESTER – The dispute between Congregation Ahavath Achim and a congregant over the creation of
a new interfaith cemetery has been resolved.
Maria Balaban of Colchester filed suit against her congregation after the 2010 burial of Juliet Steer, who was not Jewish, in the congregation’s Gillette Road cemetery.
The case was dismissed in New London Superior Court on July 31, by agreement of both parties, according to Martin Rutchik, Balaban’s attorney.
The disagreement was based on differing interpretations of the by-laws established when Congregation Ahavath Achim, a Conservative synagogue, absorbed the Orthodox Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation in a 1999 merger. Balaban maintained that the newly established interfaith burial area, where Steer was interred, was designated for Jews and their non-Jewish spouses or life-partners, and other family members. The congregation claimed that the bylaws allow for burial of people of any faith, whether or not they are related to a Jew.
In the merger, Ahavath Achim acquired the Jewish Aid cemetery property, which included an undeveloped wooded area that was cleared for use as an interfaith cemetery in 2009.
According to the new agreement, the interfaith cemetery will be available to Jews and their non-Jewish spouse or significant other, and their children, grandchildren, and other family members. The two areas will be separated by a halachically prescribed fence, designed on the recommendations of Rabbi Avrohom Sternberg of Chabad of Eastern Connecticut.
“This is what I wanted to accomplish from the beginning, before the lawsuit,” says Balaban, who will cover two-thirds of the outlay for the fence. “But the cemetery committee refused to erect a kosher fence.”
The two burial areas have been separated by a partial fence, which Sternberg suggested be extended at both ends.
“It appears that the majority of the synagogue membership did not fully understand what Mrs. Balaban was trying to accomplish,” says Rutchik. “Mrs. Balaban’s assertion was that the cemetery committee had no right to amend the merger agreement between the two synagogues and that the creation of an interfaith cemetery was never formally approved by the membership. With her urgings, she has retained this Jewish cemetery with its integrity and has also created a proper interfaith cemetery.”
James Seger, president of Congregation Ahavath Achim, echoed the latest developments in an email to the Ledger: “I am pleased to tell you the basic legal issue has been resolved with both sides having signed a settlement agreement. Thus the case has been dismissed. We are now in the process of mutually fulfilling our obligations as detailed in the settlement agreement.”
“We hope that the congregation will move on and go through a period of healing, because a great deal of animosity has been created by Mrs. Balaban’s efforts,” Rutchik says. “The costs to Mrs. Balaban and the synagogue were unfortunate and I feel that this could have been worked out without going to court.”
Rutchik says that, while Juliet Steer did not qualify for burial in the interfaith cemetery under the new agreement, he does not believe that the interment sets a precedent. “The wisdom here was not to disturb that lady and to go on from there and that’s what we’re all doing,” he says.
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