A hot morning on Tish’ah B’Av is an unusual time for a public protest. But after nearly two years of appealing to the management of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, the All Bukharian Community Network (ABCN) felt that a rally at its gate was necessary to bring attention to the conditions of the graves.
“It should be known that this demonstration did not just happen yesterday,” explained Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO, Chazaq Organization. “The dear members of the ABCN group have been working for over two years. They have been in touch with the administration of Mount Carmel Cemetery over many meetings to peacefully work out a plan, but unfortunately it fell on deaf ears.” Rabbi Meirov, a member of ABCN, mentioned that the group spoke with rabbis about holding the protest on this sacred day and they were informed, “We are in mourning; it is a sad thing that we are gathering for. We are not gathering for a celebration or a happy occasion. We are gathering to show respect to the dead. Do not allow our requests to fall on deaf ears. We went through difficulties in the former Soviet Union, and we came to the country of freedom, and we are only asking for freedom of religion. Let us keep our rights. We are begging, we are screaming, please listen to our pleas and listen to the Bukharian families.”
Founded in 1906, Mount Carmel Cemetery has been popular with Bukharian Jews for its proximity to Forest Hills; their graves are easy to identify, with elaborate designs on smooth black monuments in Russian, Hebrew, and English.
During the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, despite restrictions on public gatherings and enforced social distancing, family members were determined to bury their loved ones. As funerals picked up, more people realized that something was wrong at this cemetery.
“My mother died of old age, and when we went to bury her, we saw that our father’s monument had collapsed and had flipped over. We waited a half year to have it replaced - and we had to pay for this,” said Larisa Zavulunov. “Speaking to them was useless.” So, she spoke to Yuriy Danielov, a fellow immigrant from Samarkand and an engineer who determined that the concrete poured under the monuments was poorly done and causing the monuments above them to sink and collapse.
“My mother-in-law’s grave was damaged,” said Nargiz Mallayeva. “We did not have a voice at the time. The dead cannot speak for themselves, but we can speak for them.”
Danielov brought his concerns to the cemetery management and was ignored. He then turned to other activists in the community to step in.
“When you bury someone, you expect them to take care of your needs. The cemetery refuses to adopt common sense remedies,” said community activist David Aronov. At the time, he was one of the founders of ABCN, when its main task was distributing protective equipment and food packages to the homebound. “I brought in the elected officials, such as Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, and we made the request to have a bill concerning cemeteries.”
Hevesi then authored a bill to allow for longer operating hours, maintenance, and religious supervision when requested by family members. Although Hevesi could not attend last Sunday’s rally, his State Senate co-sponsor Joe Addabbo Jr. attended, along with Councilwoman Lynn Schulman and Corona District Leader Hiram Monserrate. “We call for maintenance, we call for respect. Legislation should not have been done to do what is right, but sometimes it is needed,” Addabbo said.
“No one should have to be faced with a desecrated gravesite when they go to the cemetery to visit a loved one who has passed. Unfortunately, that is the reality many Jewish residents are forced to deal with time and time again,” Senator Addabbo said. “That is why I combined efforts with Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi on this legislation, so no family has to endure finding a loved one’s grave defaced or destroyed.”
“The desecration and disrespect for the graves of our Jewish brothers and sisters is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. I want to thank the leaders of this community for bringing this issue to my attention. I have introduced legislation alongside Senator Addabbo to right these wrongs, prevent future tragedies, and ensure the dignity of our loved ones’ final resting place,” said Assembly Member Hevesi in a statement to the Bukharian Jewish Link.
“The Jewish Community is sadly all too familiar with persecution and negligence of our religious observances,” said District 29 Council Member Lynn Schulman. “Desecration of a gravesite is already a terrible thing for a family in mourning to have to deal with, and the fact that our community is yet again taking the brunt of such disrespect is abysmal.”
“Right next to this cemetery is the Cypress Hills Cemetery. Fifteen years ago, they were sued for neglecting graves,” said Monserrate. “This is the most sacred land. When we pass these laws, they must have civil fines.”
As they spoke, a truck parked next to the rally and showed photos of the damaged graves. Within a couple of minutes, the heat turned into a sudden downpour. Queens Shmira came prepared with a tent for the rally participants. Those who could not fit under it held up their signs to keep their heads dry.
“The rain was a sign. We put our signs up and asked G-d for help,” said Yuhan Benjamin.
Slavik Khaimov was among the organizers of the rally. He said that there are hundreds of Bukharian individuals buried at Mount Carmel. “The main point is for religious oversight, as you have in a kosher restaurant. The work should be approved by a professional engineer.”
Unfortunately, the engineer hired by the cemetery and the engineer representing the grieving family members did not agree on the reasons for the collapse of the monuments. Khaimov notes that regardless of vandalism, weather damage, or malpractice, the family members must pay for a damaged monument.
“When we see persistent structural issues, then people are talking,” Aronov said. “People pay $15,000 for a plot. The cemetery makes a lot of money from the Bukharian community and that’s why we are asking for oversight.”
The demonstration received citywide coverage by a follow-up interview with Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, Yuriy Danielov, and Shabsie Saphirstein, conducted by Michelle Ross of WPIX the next day.
Following the WPIX story, Helene Schwartz, a longtime advocate for the Bukharian community, came forward with her own episode. “The Schwartz family plot is across from the Bukharian plots in New Mount Carmel Cemetery. We were recently informed by a visitor to the graves that two of the gravestones, including my mother’s a”h, are collapsing. This is very upsetting. Both my brother and I live in Florida and it’s very difficult for us to make sure that the cemetery is carrying out its obligations to provide the perpetual care for which our family has paid.” The ABCN group has already pledged to assist the Schwartz family in this effort.
By Sergey Kadinsky