Over 35 cemeteries are located throughout Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, though most have since been covered over and are no longer apparent. Each tells an important story about the history of our neighborhoods. One that fortunately still survives, and is among the most unique in the neighborhood, is the Second Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, at West 11th Street and 6th Avenue.
In 1654, Shearith Israel, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, was founded by the first Jews to arrive in Dutch New Amsterdam, and was the first jewish congregation in North America. While the Congregation was initially located below Wall Street in what is now the Financial District, and is now located on the Upper West Side, Shearith Israel has left an indelible mark on the built environment of Greenwich Village that highlights the development of New York City in the 19th century, and sheds a unique light upon the implementation of the Manhattan’s world-renowned street grid.
The “Second Cemetery’’ (Beth Haim Shenee) of Congregation Shearith Israel at 72-76 West 11th received burials from 1805 to 1830. When the West 11th Street Cemetery opened in 1805, it was initially a burial place for victims of communicable diseases as well as transient Jews who were not members of the community, but it became the Congregation’s main burying ground when NYC passed a law in 1823 prohibiting burial south of Canal Street. From 1805 to 1830, at least 66 people were buried here. One of the most notable was Ephraim Hart (1747-1825), a veteran of the American Revolution who went on to sign the 1792 Buttonwood Agreement which created the New York Stock Exchange. A flag is ceremonially placed at Hart’s grave marker each Memorial Day. Other notable people interred here include Isaac Harby, often considered a founder of Reform Judaism in America, and painter Joshua A. Canter.
Prior to 1830, the cemetery was located on what was then known as Milligan Street. However, the extension of Manhattan’s “grid ”in 1830 cut the cemetery into its current fragment; some graves were disinterred and moved into the small, remaining triangle. Three walls were built to contain the cemetery, and much of the original historic fabric of the walls remains today. A plan to restore the graveyard first began in 2014 and was hastened by a 2019 car accident that damaged one of the historic retaining walls. A Shearith Israel committee, which included representatives of the West 11th Street Block Association, architect Rachel Frankel, and architectural conservator Mary Jablonski, created a restoration plan that was approved by the Landmarks Preservation commission in September 2020, with support from Village Preservation.
The primary objective of this restoration plan is to rebuild and restore the street-facing cemetery wall. The Congregation also hopes to protect a flourishing American Elm tree and numerous gravestones throughout the cemetery. They will also be developing an educational program for the site to celebrate the West 11th Street Cemetery’s history and the history of Greenwich Village.
While the Congregation has already raised more than half of the funds necessary to fully rebuild, restore, and preserve the Second Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, they are still working tirelessly to fundraise for the remainder of the project. Those interested in aiding this effort should get in touch Rev. Zachary Edinger (email@example.com or 212-873-0300) or block neighbors Brad Finkelstein (firstname.lastname@example.org, 917-328-8522), John Nason (email@example.com, 410-726-0296), and Nathaniel Wice (firstname.lastname@example.org, 212-337-9714). To learn more about this project, please visit the West 11th Street Cemetery Renewal Project website.
To learn about more Jewish history in the Greenwich Village Historic District, take the Jewish History tour here.
To learn more about the Second Cemetery and other cemeteries of Congregation Shearith Israel, read here.
To learn more about other ways in which Shearith Israel and its congregants shaped the history and development of Greenwich Village, read here.