Hebrew Association helps needy of Greater New Haven with loans, proper burial

EAST HAVEN >> Gary Cohen of Bethany has been a member of the Hebrew Burial and Free Loan Association for close to 50 years, helping keep the group’s Jewish cemeteries on Brockett Place in good shape, but it wasn’t until last year that he discovered the grave of an uncle that hadn’t been visited in at least 50 years, maybe 100.

“Here I am doing the work here and he was here and I found him,” Cohen said as he trimmed overgrowth from the cemetery fence.

“He died before my father was born” in 1911, probably of smallpox, Cohen said.

Cohen’s uncle is one of more than 700 poor Jewish residents from the New Haven area and beyond who have been given a proper Jewish burial by the association, whose members, assisted by students from the Yeshiva of New Haven, were helping to clean up headstones Sunday.

They were clearing stones of overgrowth and raising those that had sunk too low into the ground.

“We’ve even taken people from outside the New Haven area, further north in Connecticut,” said Paul Terman of New Haven, a member of the group’s board.

If the association is notified that “a poor Jewish person … who’s passed away, we’re not going to turn them away.”

The work to make the gravestones more visible is important, Terman said.

“We want people to be able to come back here and see the stone of their father or grandfather or other relative and be able to see that memory and pay their respects.”

Ephraim Schwimmer and Asher Baum, both of Lakewood, New Jersey, and students at the Yeshiva of New Haven, said they were impressed by the amount of Jewish history represented in the cemeteries.

After the Holocaust, “they came across and started the first Orthodox Jewish high school in America and a lot of the Yeshivas have been based on that,” Schwimmer said.

The cleanup was organized by Terman’s wife, Sharon Reinhart, who works in the Yale School of Drama, as part of the Yale Day of Service.

She has been more involved in the no-interest loan function of the association, which started out as two organizations about the turn of the 20th century.

“The earliest person I saw buried here was (buried in) 1876 and that was a little confusing because that was before the organization was actually existing,” Terman said.

Brian Koblitz of Branford, president of the association, said it takes care of the graves in two cemeteries, its own and one across Brockett Place — once called Horse Cart Way — owned by the Independent New Haven Lodge, a social organization similar to those formed by other immigrant groups.

“We actually used to provide the whole service,” Koblitz said. “We had a hearse that we ran out to the funeral parlor.”

Now, the state pays for indigent burials so the association’s main role is to provide a burial that follows the Jewish faith.

The other service provided by the association is interest-free loans given to the needy to help pay bad debts, rent, medical expenses and the like.

“They were immigrants that had come over here,” Koblitz said. “Many of them were Russian. They formed an organization that collected dues and they provided interest-free loans to the incoming immigrants to this country.”

The recipients might have repaid the loans at 25 cents a week, “a lot of money back then,” Koblitz said.

Another purpose of the loans was to help business owners sponsor immigrants, which was a requirement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “to get people established and to get people on their feet.”

“We’re actually looking to expand that now and go a little further,” Koblitz said.

“We’re looking into doing … small-business loans, educational loans, to go along with the scholarships we do.”

More information about the Hebrew Burial and Free Loan Association of New Haven can be found at https://hbflanh.org or by calling 203-772-8488.