By Tara Kyle
FLATIRON DISTRICT — Shearith Israel, the oldest congregation in North America, revealed the first phase of preservation work on its historic West 21st Street burial grounds on Monday.
The cemetery, which operated from 1829-1851, is home to more than 250 graves belonging to former members of Shearith Israel's congregation. Many are unmarked, discovered only recently by a ground-penetrating radar survey.
Other aspects of the preservation undertaken by the Upper West Side synagogue include historically sensitive landscaping and the construction of an entry and pathways intended to allow visitors access while protecting the graves.
“One of the things that people don’t realize about stone is that it is actually remarkably fragile,” said Christine Franck, 41, an Upper East Side landscape designer. In some cases, “even just touching them with your hand can damage them because you can remove grains of marble.”
Some of the burials predate the cemetery itself, because they were moved in the 1850s from another cemetery at Chatham Square. The oldest known grave is for Sarah Bueno de Mesquita, who died in 1708, age unknown.
Funding for this phase of the preservation came from the El Ad Group and 21 LLC Corp. Later phases, which will focus on restoring headstones, iron work and a brick wall, will cost in the vicinity of $750,000 to $1 million, according to Lloyd Zuckerberg, chair of the congregation's historic cemeteries committee.
Among the attendees at the unveiling was congregation member Eliza de Sol Mendes, whose family association with Shearith Israel dates back many generations. Twenty-three Jews of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry opened the synagogue in 1654.
The synagogue is now on 8 West 70th Street, near Central Park West.
“To be in the cemetery here with people from the early ancestors of our congregation is very, very meaningful,” de Sola Mendes, who lives on the Upper East Side, said.
“It’s very heartening, it’s really very special because people have given a lot of love time and effort in honoring our American history.”