More than 500 headstones were toppled overnight on Saturday at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, according to Jewish community leaders there—a far higher number than the approximately 100 headstones that police had initially estimated. The vandalism occurred days after a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, Missouri, and amid an ongoing rash of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and Jewish schools nationwide.
“It’s possible that this was just a bunch of nudniks running through a cemetery and doing their Saturday-night defacing and this was where they chose,” says Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. However, he adds, “I don’t believe that.”
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The Philadelphia Police Department responded to a call about vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery at around 9:40 a.m. on Sunday, a department spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Monday. “We must allow the investigation to take its course before we can determine a specific motive or label as a particular type of crime,” the spokesperson said. “However, this is an abominable crime, that appears to target these particular headstones.”
The police said the vandals had knocked over approximately 100 headstones. But Yosef Goldman, a Philadelphia rabbi who visited the cemetery on Sunday, says he and others who surveyed the vandalism counted 539 damaged plots.
A Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized days after a similar incident near St. Louis. Tom Mihalek/REUTERS
Rosenberg, of Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation, echoed the contention that the number could be around 500. The burial plots there date to the 1890s, and the cemetery is run by volunteers, according to Rosenberg.
The local Jewish Federation says it has received an outpouring of support since news of the incident first broke on Sunday. In fact, so many people tried to donate to restore the headstones that the federation’s website crashed. Rosenberg says the group received some 1,500 individual donations; he could not provide a specific dollar amount. Restoring each headstone could cost at least $450, he says.
Some of that money will likely come from a fundraising effort that a pair of Muslim Americans launched following the recent incident at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery near St. Louis. That effort raised $20,000 in three hours and has since raised more than $133,000. The organizers announced on Sunday that they would seek to offer funds to help restore the Philadelphia cemetery.
One of those organizers, Tarek El-Messidi, lives in Philadelphia and visited the cemetery on Sunday. “Many Muslims realize that this could have been a Muslim cemetery,” he says. “I immediately thought of my own family…. I felt like we’re in the same boat, the Muslim and Jewish community right now, with a lot of rhetoric, a lot of hate crimes, lots of threats, lots of vandalism.” El-Messidi says he has been in touch with local Jewish community leaders, and he anticipates donating at least $50,000 from his fundraising effort.
Community members held a vigil at the cemetery on Sunday night, and an interfaith gathering in response to the incident is scheduled for Monday afternoon. “This is a time where this community has really unbelievably impressed me,” Rosenberg says. “People are pissed off. They’ve had enough.” The local Jewish Federation is organizing a cleanup effort.
Despite the support, Jewish community members remain concerned about the incident and similar ones. On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League reported bomb threats made against Jewish schools in Fairfax, Virginia, and Rockville, Maryland, and against a Jewish Community Center in Asheville, North Carolina. The ADL cited additional unconfirmed reports against Jewish locations in several more states.
Vice President Mike Pence visited the cemetery near St. Louis to help with cleanup efforts there. President Donald Trump said in a statement on February 21: “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” Earlier, he had faced criticism for seeming unwilling to answer questions about anti-Semitic incidents, including at a press conference on February 16.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Keeney and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released
condemning the latest cemetery incident.
The vandalism of Jewish headstones at a Phila. cemetery is a cowardly, disturbing act. We must find those responsible and hold accountable. https://t.co/6eM0G2tC4S— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) February 26, 2017
The National Museum of American Jewish History, which is in Philadelphia, is responding to the incident by collecting stories about the people buried there and making them available online. “The desecration of the sacred site of the cemetery is really the lowest and most cowardly [act],” says Museum CEO and Director Ivy Barsky. “Once we make them human, I think that it’s not just about stones, it’s about people and families and history and legacy and honor.” Barsky expects that project to launch this week.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers