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As the societies have withered away, control of the organizations and their assets has passed down within families. The officers who now run the landsmanschaften — often the children or grandchildren of earlier officers — have found themselves responsible for cemetery land worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s a business opportunity that many find difficult to turn down.
Four or five years ago, a man named Eric became the president of an old landsmanschaft called the Przedborzer Friends Society. Eric declined to give his last name when contacted by this reporter at a number printed in an ad he placed in the Forward. In a telephone interview, he said he had inherited the presidency from his father, who inherited the presidency from his own father in the 1970s.
Eric knows very little about the society. Even the name doesn’t come easily to him — he had to look it up when asked about it.
Judging by its name, the society was likely founded by Jewish immigrants from the town of Przedborz in Poland sometime around 1900. When Eric became president, the society was effectively defunct.
“Nobody had come forward in God knows how many decades,” he said.
Not a single member had claimed a plot during the entirety of his father’s tenure as president. Yet the Przedborzer Friends still owned about 20 unused plots in Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y. Eric decided to sell off the plots.
In New York, societies may take their graves to the open market only after first offering to sell them back to the cemetery. The law makes it easy for the cemeteries to buy back the plots, requiring that the societies offer them to the cemeteries at the price at which the plots were originally purchased plus simple interest of 4% a year. The resultant price is invariably far below the plots’ current value.
Eric went to Beth David to sell the plots. “They were offering me $5,000 for all the plots,” he said. “I said no.”
In Eric’s mind, the exchange was a negotiation. The law sees it differently. The price the societies offer to the cemeteries is designed to be artificially low, giving the cemeteries a chance to turn a quick profit by reselling the plots at the going rate. The rationale is that this gives the cemeteries a way to bulk up their financial assets so that they can afford to maintain their facilities after they have put their last coffin in the ground.