Lakewood, NJ - 'Shaimos' Burial Stirs Controversy
Lakewood, NJ - The sight at the end of a loose-dirt path off Vermont Avenue has done little but alarm some who have come across it. There, in the trees, a large hole has been dug from which thousands of black trash bags overflow.
“I was like, this can’t be legal,” said Scott Wegeman, whose backyard on Albert Avenue is directly behind the burial site. “You can’t just treat your property like a landfill.”
While perhaps temporarily unsightly (the hole was to be covered by the end of the week), the decades-old tradition is religiously unavoidable, Orthodox leaders contend. That is because the bags’ contents are what strictly observant Jews in Lakewood cannot burn or toss into trash cans: Hebrew text, Torah scripture, sacred garb — no longer usable but still holy.
So it is buried, most every year, in backyards, with coffins, under foundations and in open lots — anywhere a patch of earth can be found. The practice usually coincides with Passover, since that is when Orthodox families do their spring cleaning.
This year, in an attempt to organize and facilitate the custom, a local rabbi secured a 100-by-150-foot piece of undeveloped land donated by an individual and had it deed-restricted so nothing can be built there. This week, he dispatched youth under his supervision to collect the items from Orthodox households, bring them to the site in rented trucks and place them into the 40-by-60-foot pit.
“It doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s a holy thing,” said the rabbi, Chaim Abadi, who got a site plan approved by the township zoning office.
But for those people unfamiliar with the tradition, such a scene might scream unlawful dumping. Complaints were made with police, the Ocean County health department and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Even some officials, such as Committeeman Raymond Coles, were unaware of the practice.
On Thursday, Police Chief Robert Lawson sent an e-mail to township officials explaining it to them.
“Based on those calls we did refer this to the county and the DEP,” Lawson said, despite having become familiar with the routine after so many years. “They did come down and we discussed it and found that nothing was done that was illegal or inappropriate.”
DEP officials tell a different story.
“They do not have a permit,” department spokesman Larry Hajna said. “We are investigating unpermitted activity.”
Later Thursday afternoon, Abadi confirmed he was issued a violation notice from the DEP for the site. But details about the violation were not available Thursday evening.
Officials for New Jersey American Water, a company that provides drinking water for the township and has a well that sits about 300 feet from the site, said they were not going to react until a ruling is made.
“We’re going to wait for the (DEP’s) determination to decide whether this is something we need to be concerned about,” company spokesman Richard Barnes said prior to news of a violation.
Rabbi calls a halt
Yet religious leaders stress their intention is to benefit the community by isolating the practice to one place deep in the woods, rather than burying in piecemeal fashion. Abadi said he hopes to reuse the site in future years.
Longstanding but largely unnoticed, the practice used to occur mostly in cemeteries. It is considered an honor to be buried with sacred texts, Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg said. But as Orthodox populations exploded, more and larger spaces were required.
Sites have been dug in the mountains in North Jersey, in Jackson off Frank Applegate Road, and in Lakewood off East 7th Street. Private companies have sprung up to haul the items away for small fees. But not until now has it become a public controversy.
Abadi said, based on complaints and the DEP violation, no more bags will be unloaded off Vermont Avenue.
“People have gotten a little crazy about it,” he said.
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