Cemetery's Jewish-only tradition at heart of Colchester synagogue case

Maria Balaban, a stalwart supporter of her Colchester synagogue, is taking a stand — one that has resulted in her being shunned by fellow synagogue members, according to her attorney.

The 73-year-old Orthodox Jew has sued Congregation Ahavath Achim for allowing the burial of a non-Jewish woman in 2010 in the synagogue's cemetery on Gillette Lane.

The trial got under way Wednesday in New London Superior Court.

The deceased woman, Juliet Steer, was African-American, but Balaban and her attorney, Martin M. Rutchick, strenuously deny accusations of racism. Rutchick said some synagogue members have been harsh with his client, a retired social worker who is proud of her work with blacks and other minorities.

"They don't even want her there," Rutchick said. "And this was her life."

Rutchick attempted to bring a claim of emotional distress against the congregation on behalf of his client, but Judge Robert A. Martin, who will be rendering a verdict in the case, dismissed that claim before the trial began.

Watching the proceedings Wednesday was Paul Steer. His sister died of cancer in 2010 after selecting the Gillette Lane Cemetery as her final resting place.

During a break, Steer asked Rutchick if he has "anything to worry about" with respect to an earlier demand that Steer's body be exhumed. Rutchick told him he had nothing to worry about. Rutchick said his client felt the Steer family had suffered enough and was just seeking to have the synagogue follow its own rules.

Testimony focused Wednesday on contractual issues involving a merger that took place in 1999 between the Jewish Aid Society and Ahavath Achim and the various cemeteries under the consolidated congregation's control.

Balaban has claimed the merger agreement called for the creation of an interfaith cemetery that would allow for the burial of non-Jewish spouses, significant others and family members of synagogue members in a certain section of the cemetery.

Arthur Liverant, a member of the synagogue's Board of Directors and chairman of the Cemetery Subcommittee, testified Wednesday. He and other synagogue officials contend the bylaws allow the burial of non-Jews in all but one section, rows A to H, of the Gillette Lane Cemetery. During the merger, that section was set aside for members of the Jewish Aid Society.

His client is a modern woman, Rutchick said, but there are some traditions that demand adherence. He said the Jewish people of Colchester had come to the United States from countries where they were cast aside and not allowed to live among other Jews. They have believed for generations that Jews should be buried with other Jews, he said.

"This is what has kept Jews strong, because of their being together and staying strong that way," he said.

While the trial was to stay focused on the contract, Liverant, the first witness, raised the possibility during his testimony that Steer was, in fact, a Jew.

"Juliet Steer told me in our one telephone conversation that her father had told her that her mother was Jewish and he chose never to discuss it again," Liverant said.

Though his testimony was considered hearsay, Martin allowed it after George Purtill, the synagogue's attorney, cited an exception to the hearsay rule called the "dead man statute."

In the hallway later, Paul Steer said his family was Christian, not Jewish.

The next witness was Balaban's son, attorney Mark Balaban, a former member of Ahavath Achim who drafted the merger agreement in 1999 on behalf of the synagogue. As Rutchick posed his questions to Mark Balaban, Judge Martin sustained continued objections by the synagogue's attorney, George Purtill, who claimed that Mark Balaban would be breaching the attorney-client privilege by answering the questions.

Mark Balaban, who, like his parents, owns plots in the Gillette Lane Cemetery, also known as the Jewish Aid Cemetery, was allowed to say whether he still would want to be buried in the cemetery if he learned a non-Jew was allowed to be buried there.

"It depends on whether there was a fence that would demark a separation between the original Gillette Lane Cemetery and the other confines of the cemetery," he answered.

His family has a three-generation history of burials there, including both sets of grandparents and several others, Mark Balaban said.

The trial resumes today.

k.florin@theday.com

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