By Rose Marie Arce and Susan Candiotti, CNN
Colchester, Connecticut (CNN) - Juliet Steer was dying of lymphoma when she told her brother Paul she wanted to be buried just like Jesus, following Jewish customs. Even though she’s a black Christian, she chose a plot in the secluded interfaith section of this quiet town's Jewish Ahvath Achim Cemetery.
“She felt like it was a nice and peaceful place,” Paul Steer said. Juliet liked the quiet. When she died, Paul had her buried in the plot, hopeful that she’d finally rest in peace.
But this Jewish cemetery in Colchester, Connecticut, has been anything but peaceful since one of its board members sued Paul Steer. It’s now the center of a legal fight tinged with allegations of racial and religious prejudices.
Maria Balaban, a cemetery board member who has relatives buried there, is demanding Paul remove Juliet’s remains from the cemetery because she is not Jewish and has no ties to anyone in the Jewish section. Paul Steer believes part of the reason Balaban wants his sister's remains removed is because she was African-American.
“Her lawyer said ‘My client don’t believe your sister accepted the faith and she has to be exhumed.' I said, ‘What are you talking about?' 'Your sister don’t (sic) belong there, the cemetery is only for Jews,'” remembers Paul, whose family is of Jamaican descent. “I said, ‘Man, get out of here.’”
Balaban owns empty plots in the cemetery’s Jewish section, near those of her relatives. She is also suing her own congregation because it allowed a non-Jew to be buried on the other side of the property. She says the interfaith section was only supposed to allow non-Jews with ties to Judiasm or members of Congregation Ahvath Achim, a conservative synagogue whose name means "brotherly love."
“She’s not supposed to be there,” Balaban said of Juliet Steer. “She is not Jewish. I had no idea what she was. I didn’t know where she came from, there was never anything said.”
The dispute has upset members of the congregation, whose board - including Balaban - voted in 2009 to allow people of any faith to be buried in the interfaith section.
“That’s the troubling thing about the case for us, we really don’t understand the motivation, we really sure wish it had been raised at the creation of the interfaith section back on November 1 of 2009,” said George Purtil, a lawyer for the congregation. “We wouldn’t be in the pickle that we’re in right now if somebody, if she had just spoken up.”
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Balaban said she did speak up and accuses the board of inaccurately portraying her support for the interfaith section. “I would never have approved that and I did not approve it,” she said. “The minutes are 80% wrong.”
Her lawyer, Martin Rutchik, said Balaban’s wishes are consistent with the rules governing most Jewish cemeteries. “There has been a violation of the sanctity and the respect of cemetery grounds that were created for Jews, who after centuries of running around went to Colchester and created a home of their own,” he said.
Arthur Liverant, another board member, showed CNN the two sections, divided by a road and some fencing. Juliet, an African-American, is the only person to be buried in the interfaith section so far, he said, although four other plots are reserved and paid for.
The other four plots are for white people and Balaban has not objected to those, which has brought the issue of race into the debate at the synagogue. “They are white, but it makes no different to us,” Arthur said. "Anybody is allowed to be buried there.”
Balaban, who was born in Cuba, says race has nothing to do with her objections to Juliet Steer’s remains. She says the other four plots were bought by people associated to members of the congregation. As a social worker who devoted years of her life to working with black teenagers, she said she's stung by any implication this dispute is about race.
“I do not want to hurt the poor Julia who is buried there that she thought was going to be buried in a peaceful place,” Balaban said. “It’s not my intention. I would not want to hurt anyone. I’m fighting those who approved that. I’m not fighting her. I’m not fighting the family.”
But the family is now fighting, saying they have no intention of moving Juliet’s body. Her brother says he believes Balaban voted to have an interfaith section with no restrictions, but changed her mind when she discovered Juliet is black.
“God knows if she is a racist or not, but I know I think so,” Steer said. “I could be wrong, but from what is going on and from a statement she made … that if she was buried at the back of the cemetery she would accept it more. Only a racist would say something like that.”
Balaban cringes at any suggestions race played a motive in her lawsuit. She says she mentioned moving the body to the back of the cemetery because that space belonged to a congregation that merged with her synagogue. They were more open to allowing people of other faiths. Her comment had nothing to do with wanting a black woman placed in the back of anything, she insisted.
The discussion in the temple to allow non-Jews into the cemetery began a few years ago, because so many Jews had intermarried or had non-Jewish relatives. The final decision was to permit everyone since people had different connections to Judaism, including civil unions and friendships.
The current debate has created bitterness on all sides, prompting Balaban and her lawyer to throw out a potential compromise. “I would suggest that the grave site of Juliet Steer not be disturbed and be surrounded by shrubbery,” says an October letter from Balaban’s lawyer.
George Purtill, the lawyer for the congregation, said that was completely unacceptable to the congregation. “That’s gross,” he said. “My client, the board of directors, was absolutely disgusted by that suggestion.”
A judge will weigh in next month, when a temporary injunction to exhume Steer’s body and move her remains elsewhere is scheduled to be heard. The congregation says it will never allow the body to be taken out. But Maria Balaban will have her day in court, facing her own congregation and Juliet Steer’s family, which also vows to keep her in the resting place she chose.