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For California paperhanger Mark Specht, the moment of truth in his long-running fight with a Jewish burial society based in the Lower East Side came a few weeks ago in a tense meeting in the offices of the New York State Attorney General.
For the past four years, Specht has been battling in and out of court with the Lanzuter Benevolent Association over allegations that the organization has not fulfilled its mission to finance the costs of funerals for its members, and has instead warehoused hundreds of grave sites in New York and New Jersey, and even misappropriated money.
Specht and his lawyer, Jamie Forman, had finally secured a face-to-face meeting with the man who runs the society, 94-year-old Ben Sauerhaft, along with his accountant and grandson, Adam Gottlieb, and their lawyer, Martin Cohen. Robert Molic, an assistant attorney general, was there to mediate the dispute.
At the climax of the meeting, Specht and Forman say, Cohen leaned across the table and declared, "If you want to press this, we'll push back."
And then, Cohen invoked the name of one of the three most powerful political figures in state government: "I'll call up Shelly Silver, and we'll push back," Cohen said, referring to the lugubrious Assembly Speaker and charter member of the "Three Men in a Room Club."
"Are you threatening us?" Forman asked.
"I'm just telling you that's what's going to happen," they say Cohen replied.
It was one of those moments in which the old ways meet the new. Whether Cohen could actually make good on his threat or not is an open question, but the exchange illustrated how personal things had gotten in this quiet little fight in the anonymous subculture of burial societies.
The first societies were founded by Jewish immigrants well over a century ago. Lanzuter itself was founded in 1889 so that members could pool their money to buy grave sites and pay for funerals. About 15,000 burial groups exist in New York State, about 6,000 of which are actually active.
Once prominent in the lives of their members, burial societies have, over the past century, faded from the public consciousness—many of them eventually losing all of their members and existing only on paper. Many of the societies, however, have accumulated large sums of money and control up to hundreds of unused grave sites, with only a very few people positioned to decide what to do with that property and cash.
Increasingly, state officials say, the operations of these societies are generating complaints from members who still remain.
"No one is looking at these organizations—nobody knows what these organizations are doing," a state official tells the Voice. "There's no registration and no reporting procedures. There's no way to tell what they are using the money for or what they are doing with their graves."
"There's a bigger picture here," says Forman. "There are a lot of questions, but absolutely no oversight."
"When people came from Europe, they banded together with people from their towns," says Florence Marmor, 75, a woman who studies Jewish genealogy and had her own run-in with a burial society—in her case, over her own grave. She explains that burial societies sprouted up as one way to keep people together. "They didn't register with the government. They had to bury their dead, and they wanted to bury them among their own people."
As time passed, burial societies literally took over some cemeteries—controlling up to 80 percent of the land, particularly in Jewish cemeteries. "In effect, the burial society land is a cemetery within a cemetery," says Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the office of the Secretary of State, which oversees cemeteries.
As the decades rolled forward, burial societies served a powerful function in the lives of their members. But ensuing generations spread to the four corners of the country, and membership in many societies dwindled.
"People were dying; membership was decreasing," Marmor says. "The children just weren't interested. They moved on from their parents' ways."
As membership declined, the societies themselves began to fall apart. Fewer people were interested in maintaining the organizations. But the societies still held titles to the grave sites and still had money in investment accounts.
A quick scan of society tax returns in a state database shows that some societies control millions of dollars in investment accounts, while others control only a few thousand dollars. Every year, a couple of dozen societies are liquidated because they have decided to fold.
It wasn't uncommon for some societies, after years of neglect, to fall under the control of a single person. That person then has control not only of the money in the society investment accounts, which could be substantial, but also of the unused graves—which is kind of like owning real estate. Grave sites, after all, can be bought and sold, just like apartments, houses, or plots of land.
Some societies own hundreds of unused grave sites—holdings that could be worth more than $1 million on the open market. And with that kind of control, it's not hard to undersell the cemetery operators themselves.