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Settlement reached in Jewish cemetery dispute

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) – A Connecticut woman agreed Wednesday to settle her lawsuit against her Jewish congregation over the burial of a black woman in the synagogue’s cemetery, her lawyer said.

Martin Rutchik, attorney for 73-year-old Maria Balaban, said he and a lawyer for the Congregation Ahavath Achim in Colchester reached a tentative deal in the middle of the trial, which started last week. Terms weren’t disclosed. The congregation’s board of directors and members must approve the agreement.

Balaban, a member of the congregation’s board of directors, sued last year over the burial of Juliet Steer in 2010, saying the synagogue broke its own rules against burial of non-Jews at the cemetery. Balaban, a white Hispanic who grew up in Cuba, initially wanted Steer’s body exhumed and relocated, but later dropped that request.

The Jamaican-born Steer, who lived in nearby East Hampton, chose her plot in an interfaith section of the congregation’s cemetery before her death from cancer at age 47. Her brother said she thought it was a peaceful spot.

A lawyer for the congregation, George Purtill, said in court documents that Balaban was only suing because Steer was black, which Balaban denied. Purtill didn’t immediately return a message Wednesday.

Traditional Jewish laws and practices prohibit the burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. Steer is the only person buried in a section of the cemetery that other congregation members say was set aside for interfaith couples, their children and other non-Jews.

Rutchik said race was never a factor in the dispute. He said Balaban would have filed suit over the burial of any non-Jew in the cemetery.

“Mrs. Balaban hopes from all of this there will be a healing, and they can get back to being a Jewish community,” he said.

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