Talk about grave robbing!
A Queens woman has been accused of stealing thousands of deeds to cemetery plots from the Bukharian Jewish community after a domestic dispute with her husband, the United Bukharian Congregation (UBC) alleges in a lawsuit.
In a suit filed Monday in Manhattan Supreme Court, the UBC alleges that Svetlana Nektalova, of Forest Hills, is sitting on nearly 5,000 deeds to plots at Jewish cemeteries throughout the New York metropolitan area and refusing to turn them over, preventing the prompt and proper religious burial for deceased members of the community.
“Mrs. Nektalova’s stubborn refusal to return them to the right owners, the UBC, who holds them in trust for those suddenly finding themselves making funeral arrangements for their deceased family and friends without the funds necessary to do so,” the UBC wrote in a complaint submitted to the court.
Tens of thousands of Bukharian Jews — who trace their lineage to the Emirate of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan — call Queens home, with a majority of them living in Forest Hills.
Among the services the UBC provides to congregants is purchasing burial plots at Jewish cemeteries on behalf of community members who cannot afford to do so. Jewish law requires decedents be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours of death; by holding cemetery plots in trust, the UBC says, it enables loved ones to expeditiously bury those they’ve lost in compliance with halakha, and ensure they don’t go bankrupt in doing so.
The 5,000 deeds allegedly in Nektalova’s possession include plots at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, and at Beth Moses and New Montefiore cemeteries, both in West Babylon, Long Island.
The ghoulish situation
When funeral arrangements are needed, UBC acts through its agents to quickly organize services. One such agent is Roman Nektalov, 92, the husband of Nektalova and a longtime administrator for the graveyard deeds.
During COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, according to the lawsuit, Nektalov found himself in a ghoulish situation: he was fielding an extraordinary number of calls from the loved ones of Bukharian Jews who had died from COVID, while also having limited access to the central deed repository at UBC’s Midtown Manhattan offices.
As such, Nektalov elected to repatriate the deeds to the Forest Hills home he shared with his wife and store them in his combination office-garage — an arrangement that held for more than 2 1/2 years.
That all changed, however, on Halloween this year, when the couple was involved in a domestic dispute, wherein Nektalova alleges her husband physically harmed her.
Nektalov, a self-described “meager 92-year-old man,” denies the domestic violence allegations, but a few days later a judge approved a restraining order against the husband, forbidding him from entering the home; Nektalova initiated divorce proceedings soon afterward.
One result of the marital brouhaha is that for an entire month, neither Nektalov nor the UBC have been able to retrieve the cemetery deeds, they contend, as Nektalova’s lawyer asserts they are “marital property” and thus subject to dispute in the divorce proceedings, presided over by a judge.
The UBC strongly contests that claim: they argue that the deeds belong neither to Nektalova nor to Nektalov, but rather are the property of the Bukharian Jewish community, held in trust for an important ritual of life and death.
“Should someone pass away today, their family will frantically call the UBC, only to learn that Mrs. Nektalova is holding the Cemetery Documents hostage, thereby delaying timely burial in accordance with Jewish Law,” UBC wrote in its complaint.
The loved ones of decedents have had to rely on memory for their plot’s location in order to bury the dead; some have even been buried in random plots throughout the cemeteries, said UBC attorney Leo Jacobs.
The imbroglio has indeed prevented a number of Bukharian Jews from being buried under the auspices of halakha, Jacobs noted.
UBC is petitioning the court to affirmatively declare the deeds are the property of the congregation, not of Nektalova, and for the appointment of an independent receiver with jurisdiction over the deeds.
Nektalova’s lawyer, Alyssa Eisner, did not return an inquiry seeking comment by press time.