HARTFORD, Conn. — Juliet Steer was dying of cancer when she chose her final resting place in the woods of southeastern Connecticut. She picked the plot in an interfaith section of a Jewish cemetery in Colchester because it was peaceful, her brother said, and she died at age 47 in 2010.
But that peace has been broken by a lawsuit seeking to have her remains exhumed and moved because Steer was not Jewish. The dispute over Steer, who was black, escalated recently with allegations of racism against the plaintiff and of retaliation against her by fellow congregation members.
Maria Balaban, a 72-year-old white member of the Congregation Ahavath Achim, sued in state court in New London nearly a year ago, alleging the congregation broke its own rule against burials of non-Jews at its three cemetery properties when it allowed the burial of the Jamaican-born Steer, who lived in the neighboring town of East Hampton. The synagogue says its rules allow for burial of non-Jews.
Balaban, who is also a member of the conservative congregation's board of directors, has reserved plots at the same cemetery for herself and her husband, and they have relatives buried there. She didn't return several messages seeking comment, but her lawyer denies the accusations and says her background, which includes employment as a social worker, demonstrates she is not racist.
According to the congregation board's meeting minutes, Balaban was present when the board in 2009 unanimously approved setting aside a section of the Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation Cemetery for interfaith couples, their non-Jewish children and other non-Jews.
Steer is the only person buried there. Four white people have reserved plots in the interfaith section, but Balaban isn't challenging their purchase or usage of the plots, according to lawyers for both the plaintiff and defendant. The four people include an interfaith couple who are married and another couple who are not.
The congregation's lawyer, George Purtill, filed a court document last month alleging that Balaban is suing only because Steer was black. He said Balaban approved of the interfaith cemetery allowing non-Jews, contested it only after Steer was buried there and has made derogatory comments about Steer's race — among them that Steer should have been buried in the back of the cemetery, away from the Balaban family plots.
"My client is very upset by this all," Purtill said. "They created the (interfaith cemetery) to be open, compassionate and caring and feel chagrined that their goodwill towards others is being rewarded with this costly litigation."
Purtill said the interfaith cemetery was the result of the changing structure of families and the increase in interfaith and other types of relationships, including unmarried couples and civil unions. Congregation rules say burial plots in the interfaith section can be bought "by an individual for any individual without regard to religious identity."
Balaban's attorney, Martin Rutchik, denies that his client is racist and that she made disparaging remarks about Steer's race. Shortly after Purtill filed the document making the racism allegations last month, Rutchik filed an updated lawsuit to add a request for damages for emotional distress, claiming that the congregation has shunned Balaban and members have been "harsh" to her and made her feel unwanted.
A court hearing is planned for Feb. 29.
Rutchik accused the congregation of inappropriately bringing race into the case.
"I feel that this tactic used by the defendant is very unfair and is very abusive of Mrs. Balaban," he said. "This lady (Balaban) has a history that does not speak of racism."
Rutchik added that Balaban grew up in Cuba, a country with a large black population, and helped many black people in New York City when she was a social worker there years ago. She also worked at a daycare center in Willimantic, Conn., attended by many African-American children.
Rutchik said that Balaban's background "clearly demonstrates this woman was not a racist," and that she is suing solely over the congregation's failure to follow its own burial rules.
Traditional Jewish laws and practices prohibit the burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries, said David Berger, dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University in New York City.
"Jews should be buried with other Jews. There is such an expectation," Berger said.
But the number of interfaith cemeteries is increasing, he said, because there are more marriages between people of different faiths.
At issue in Balaban's case is language about cemetery use in an agreement between the Congregation Ahavath Achim and the former Colchester Jewish Aid Congregation that was approved when the two groups merged in 1999. The agreement says the merged congregation "shall not allow anyone of the non-Jewish faith to be buried within the confines of Rows A through H of said cemetery or any other cemetery properties of the ... congregation."
Balaban insists that means that only Jews can be buried in the congregation's cemeteries, but the congregation says the wording about rows A through H means that non-Jews can be buried in other parts of that cemetery.
The congregation's rabbi, Kenneth Alter, and members of its board referred questions to Purtill.
"I can only say it's unfortunate," said Arthur Liverant, secretary of the congregation and chairman of its cemetery committee.
Steer, who moved to Connecticut with her two brothers and two sisters in 1987, was interested in the Jewish faith, said her brother, Paul Steer of Bloomfield. While she was ill, she was talking with Alter about Judaism and asked to be buried at the interfaith cemetery, he said.
"She went up and looked at it and thought it was a peaceful place," Paul Steer said. "She believed in the Jewish religion. We were taught that Jesus was a Jew, and that's who we worship."
Steer said that Balaban's lawsuit has upset his family, but that they don't believe Balaban will win and they're not concerned their relative's body will be relocated.
"If God doesn't want it to happen, it cannot happen," he said.