When the first Jewish patient died on Rabbi Melvyn Lerer’s watch as chaplain at the Central Islip State Hospital in 1976, he was devastated. There was no tahara (preparation of the body for burial) and no religious service. On the grave, there was no stone identifying a life lived — just a number.
He pledged that would never happen again.
He told those assembled at Friday’s rededication of the cemetery of Central Islip State Hospital how he helped bring dignity to residents, both while they lived cast away and broken lives in the psychiatric institution and when they died.
He thanked Hashem for seeing to it that the 500 souls interred in the cemetery’s concecrated Jewish section “are gone but not forgotten.”
Touro Law School, its Jewish Law Institute, and the NYS Office of Mental Health have been restoring the entire cemetery — the final resting place of 5,500 souls — since 2013.
Touro Law School Dean Elena Langan said she hopes “that visitors may find it a place of reflection consistent with respect for those who are interred.”
The Talmud teaches that in addition to loving our neighbors while they are alive, we should love them after they die, said Jewish Law Institute Director Samuel Levine.
“We are demonstrating our love of neighbor for individuals who tragically did not receive the love that they deserved while they were alive or after they passed on — sending a message that we remember them, that their souls are not forgotten.”
“Some of those who were treated and eventually buried there included Holocaust survivors and war veterans who were admitted due to mental problems caused by trauma,” Levine said.
Martha Carlin, director of the Long Island Field Office of the NYS Office of Mental Health, said the hospital began in 1889 as a farm colony for 89 individuals. It grew to house 10,000 patients, making it one of the biggest psychiatric hospitals, and closed in 1996.