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Judge urges members of Colchester synagogue to settle quarrel over cemetery

By Karen Florin

Publication: theday.com

Published May 10. 2012 4:00PM   Updated May 10. 2012 9:24PM

Superior Court Judge Robert A. Martin adjourned the Colchester cemetery case until Tuesday after urging members of Congregation Ahavath Achim to try and settle the lawsuit on their own.
“I’ve been asked to decide this very difficult and sensitive case, if you force me to,” Martin said from the bench in New London Thursday afternoon. “Somebody is going to like it, and somebody is not going to like it. ... I urge you to try to work it out while we are adjourned.”
Maria Balaban, a member of the synagogue’s board of directors and cemetery committee, sued the congregation for allowing the burial of a non-Jewish woman in 2010 in the synagogue’s cemetery on Gillette’s Lane.
Martin told the congregation members they have a wonderful history of working together and that resolving the case on their own is “doable.”
Balaban is expected to testify if and when the trial resumes on Tuesday. The case has centered on the creation of an interfaith cemetery to allow for the burial of non-Jewish spouses, significant others and children of synagogue members in a certain section of the cemetery. Balaban had concerns about the interfaith cemetery but went along with its creation, according to court testimony. She brought the lawsuit after she learned that Juliet Steer, who had no family ties to the synagogue, was buried there in 2010.
Though Balaban had initially sought exhumation of Steer’s body, she and her attorney have backed away from that demand and now say they simply want the court to order the congregation to follow the rules. She and her attorney have strenuously denied racism charges that surfaced after it was revealed that Steer was African-American. Balaban, a retired social worker, noted Thursday that she is “a Hispanic Jew, not a white Jew.”
In the courtroom on the second day of the trial, Balaban’s attorney, Martin Rutchick, called a fellow lawyer, Melvin Scott, to the witness stand to ask him about his legal work on behalf of the Jewish Aid Society when it merged with Ahavath Achim in 1999.
Scott, a synagogue member, helped draft the merger agreement along with Balaban’s son, attorney Mark Balaban. In the agreement, eight rows of burial plots in the Gillette’s Lane cemetery were set aside for members of the Jewish Aid Society.
Scott’s testimony was limited by attorney-client privilege, but at one point the prominent elderly attorney became emotional when describing his ties to the cemetery. A day earlier, Mark Balaban had the same reaction on the witness stand.
Martin noted the case’s emotional aspects when he urged members to work it out, saying it was “painful to see wonderful lawyers like Mel Scott and Mark Balaban near tears.”
Also testifying Thursday was Bruce Goldstein, a member of the board of directors, who worked on the construction of the interfaith cemetery.  Goldstein described tree plantings and a fence that was erected to separate the interfaith cemetery from the traditional Jewish cemetery. He said the Balaban family was involved with the construction.
Unlike fellow board member Arthur Liverant, Goldstein said he interprets the synagogue’s rules to allow burial only of those non-Jewish people who have family ties to a synagogue member.
k.florin@theday.com

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