New York State officials have interceded in the case of a defunct Jewish burial society that was selling graves on the open market, effectively forcing the society to give up its remaining plots.
At least eight people who purchased graves at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y., from the Przedborzer Friends Society received letters in March from the New York State Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries informing them that their purchases were invalid.
The cemetery now says that it has reached a deal with Eric Bennett, president of the Przedborzer Friends Society, by which the purchases will be honored by the cemetery in return for the society turning over its remaining graves to the cemetery.
“I’ve spoken to Mr. Bennett and he is going to release the remaining vacant graves to the cemetery and that will effectively take care of the problem,” Beth David President Warren Rosen told the Forward.
Prior to the deal, purchasers of the graves found themselves left in the lurch. One retired teacher, speaking before the cemetery and the society came to their agreement, was livid. “He cheated me out of two thousand bucks,” said Irving Slayton, 89, referring to Bennett. “I thought everything was exactly right.
But [the letter from the state says] this is all null and void.”
The black market sales were first reported by the Forward in March.
Burial societies own vast tracts of unused graves in New York-area Jewish cemeteries. Originally founded to help defray burial costs for members, many of those societies now have no members left. The people who control the societies are often the children and grandchildren of former officers. State law in New York severely limits what the current officers can do with the societies’ graves. If they want to sell them, they must offer the graves at artificially low prices to the cemetery where they are located. That allows the cemeteries to flip the graves and sell them at market rates, producing income that can help the cemeteries maintain their grounds after all the plots are filled.
If a cemetery is interested in buying back the graves, the burial society is forbidden by law from turning down their offer and selling the graves on the open market. Yet that’s exactly what Bennett, president of the Przedborzer Friends Society, told the Forward he had done in a story published in March.
Bennett, who inherited control of the Przedborzer from his father, said that no members had come forward requesting burial in the 20 plots the society still controlled in Beth David during his father’s entire tenure as president. He tried to sell the graves to Beth David, but rejected their offer.
“They were offering me $5,000 for all the plots,” he said. “I said no.”
Instead, Bennett advertised the plots in the classified pages of the Forward. That’s where Slayton, the retired teacher, said that he saw them.
Slayton purchased a single plot for $2,000 from Bennett in June 2012.
“At my advanced age, I was considering buying a burial plot out of my money so that my niece shouldn’t have to go looking around and pay for it later on,” Slayton told the Forward. “I know that at the present time that two thousand bucks is a steal for an individual burial plot.”
Warren Rosen, an official at Beth David, told the Forward in March that the cemetery sells plots for $3,500.
Slayton received the deed to his newly purchased plot and saw nothing amiss. That changed in late March, when he received a letter from Richard Fishman, the director of the New York State Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries, telling him that he couldn’t actually be buried in the plot he had bought.
“The Division of Cemeteries has been informed that the grave(s) you have purchased from the Independent Przedborzer Friend Society are illegal,” the letter read. “If you have filed deeds/reservations with Beth David Cemetery, they are null and void.”
Fishman told the Forward that he had sent similar letters to eight or nine individuals who had purchased graves from Bennett.
The letters suggest that grave buyers “seek redress” from the Przedborzer Friends Society and from Bennett, and that they send a complaint to the Division of Cemeteries if Bennett or the Przedborzer won’t refund the purchases of the plots.
“Mr. Bennett, I think has got to work out something with the cemetery,” Fishman told the Forward. “If not, he’s got to pay these people back for graves they can’t use.”
Bennett told the Forward in February that he had spent the proceeds from the sales on personal expenses, including healthcare for his parents and tuition for his children.
Contacted on April 1, Bennett said that he was in discussions with the cemetery on the issue. He declined to specify further, citing the ongoing talks. Beth David’s Rosen told the Forward on April 3 that the two sides had reached a deal.
Slayton could not be reached for comment on the deal. Earlier, he told the Forward that he hoped that the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would get involved.
“He should go to court on our behalf,” Slayton said. “This is a serious matter.”
In February, Bennett argued that the classified ads he ran advertising graves could be construed as efforts to find new members for his society. “Who’s to say that I’m not selling to members of the organization?” Bennett said. When people contact him about the ads he’s placed in the Forward, Bennett claimed that he explains to them that they are paying to join a burial society. “You don’t have to go to any meetings, but now you’ve just joined the burial society,” Bennett said he tells them.
Slayton said that Bennett never told him he was joining a burial society.
“It was all talk about buying a burial plot,” he said. “I found out I was a member of the organization when I got the deed.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.