The Board of Deputies has begun an audit of all the cemeteries it looks after in Britain to find out who owns them and who is responsible for their upkeep. It has also launched an appeal to raise the funds needed to maintain the cemeteries, hoping to generate around £50,000.
Solicitor David Marcus, the deputy for Muswell Hill, has begun researching Land Registry and other records to try to find out who owns the cemeteries, some of which are centuries old.
"The Board has accepted responsibility for cemeteries around the country, virtually all of which are now out of use," Mr Marcus explained. Some have title deeds in the name of Board honorary officers who have died, while others are in the name of the local community, or with the local authority.
"We want to start a new company and place in it all the cemeteries and any others that become its responsibility, so they are outside the Board. For example, a number are mentioned on the Jewish Heritage website, some of which are at risk, that we know nothing about and are not part of the Board's group. The problem is: Who will look after them?"
Mr Marcus said it was difficult to raise money for the upkeep of cemeteries. "People tell us they want to spend money on the living rather than the dead. We would like to establish a fund which would have enough money to look after the cemeteries the Board currently maintains."
After joining the Board's heritage group, he volunteered to take on the job of tracking down who owned the title to each cemetery.
"Some of them are better off than others. Canterbury, for instance, has an agreement with the local authority; Penzance has a similar arrangement.
"The title deed for Bath, which goes back to 1820, names the local community. There is a cemetery at Sheerness but no community. Who is going to maintain that?"
Board chief executive Jon Benjamin said: "We are not looking for a huge amount of money, nor are we looking to install CCTV or high fences. But as the years go by, the costs of maintaining the cemeteries will increase and we want to be able to keep them properly."
CEMETERY OPENED CLOSED
Bath 1815 1946
Canterbury 1772 1930
Doncaster 1930 2001
Falmouth 1780 1913
Great Yarmouth 1846 1963
Ipswich 1796 1850
Kings Lynn 1811 1846
Merthyr Tydfil 1869 2001
Penzance 1760 2000
Sheerness 1804 1855
Mile End (Bancroft Road) 1861 1907
A JC reader has described a scene of "utter abandonment and desecration" at the Bancroft Road cemetery in Mile End, East London.
Dating back to 1811, the cemetery was originally used to bury Covent Garden market-traders. It was owned by Maiden Lane Synagogue, which closed at the beginning of the 20th century.
Susanna Clapham discovered the cemetery by chance while investigating her family history. She was disappointed to find dozens of smashed graves and overgrown weeds.
"I can't understand why it's in such a terrible state," she said. "In this day and age it just seems so wrong. It's not just the cemetery but other sites around here where Jewish people lived. It's important to preserve that heritage."
In 1940, the Board of Deputies agreed to transfer ownership of a house on the site to the United Synagogue on the basis that the US would then maintain the grounds for £5 per year. That agreement still stands.
Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin maintained that the cemetery "is by no means a rubbish dump. I wrote a letter last week to the US reminding them about the 1940 agreement. What we must ensure is that there's no dumping of rubbish, people are not breaking in and that there is sufficient security."
A US spokeswoman said its representatives visited the cemetery regularly.
By Marcus Dysch