Vandalism at Philadelphia Jewish Cemetery Stirs Fears of Anti-Semitism

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About 200 people gathered in Narberth on Sunday night for a candlelight vigil in response to a cemetery desecration in Northeast Philadelphia.

Less than a week after vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, knocking over 154 headstones and causing considerable damage, the same thing has happened in Philadelphia.

Early Sunday, reports surfaced that more than 100 headstones had been overturned at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section in Northeast Philadelphia. Police were dispatched to the scene at Cheltenham and Frankford avenues.

As with the incident at Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in the University City section of St. Louis, there were no outward signs of an anti-Semitic nature at Mount Carmel. However, Nancy Baron-Baer, director of the ADL’s Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware region, has already labeled it a “hate crime.”

“At this moment, were not yet sure if it’s an act of anti-Semitism,” Baron-Baer said, “but I can assure you it’s an act of hatred.

“Before we label it anti-Semitic we need to do fact-checking and background work. But visually it looks a lot like what happened in St Louis last week, and seeing one picture like that is one too many.”

“It’s very disturbing and terrible,” added American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Regional Director Marcia Bronstein. “We’re hoping this is not a pattern.”

While the matter remains under investigation, the Philadelphia Jewish community has already swung into action. A link was posted on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia website seeking donations to help repair the damage.

“People can go to the home page and donate because we are doing all we can to make sure we can repair the headstones,” Jewish Federation CEO Naomi Adler said. “We are going to rely on the generosity of the community to focus their feeling of anxiety and disgust at what has happened to help repair the cemetery and continuously show the community that together we won’t allow these incidents to continue.

“It’s really important for the public to keep their eyes on all the religious and sacred spaces.”

Adler, who had been in touch with the caretaker of the cemetery earlier in the day, warned people to stay away due to the inherent danger on the grounds. She pointed out the cemetery, which was established in the late 19th century, is seldom visited, though the vandalism was discovered by a man visiting his father’s grave.

“We want to people to understand we want do this in a most safe and communal way to remain deferential to the sanctity of the cemetery,” she said. “The caretaker will be doing a full assessment, then he and I will be talking about what’s needed — probably a communal cleanup.

“He has the equipment to fix the stones. We just have to make sure we have the funds to do it.”

Adler also was on hand Sunday evening at a quickly organized 30-minute candlelight vigil at the Narberth War Memorial. About 200 people braved cold weather to attend.

“We’re here to tell the world that we will not let it go unnoticed,” she said.

“These vandals underestimate our resolve,” added Rabbi Will Keller, the director of Jewish Life at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, who was one of about a dozen clergy members present.

Rabbi Zimcha Zevit of the Narberth Havurah, accompanied with a guitar, led the crowd in Psalms 121 and 42, as well as other selections.

Whether the Mount Carmel and Chesed Shel Emeth incidents are isolated or indications of something greater has become a concern to her as well as the New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, which urged President Donald Trump to take a stronger stand.

“More Jewish gravestones were vandalized today, this time in Philadelphia,” the center wrote on Twitter. “Mr. President it’s time for you to deliver a primetime nationally televised speech on how you intend to combat not only anti-Semitism but also Islamaphobia and other rising forms of hate.

“Whether or not your intention, your presidency has given the oxygen of incitement to some of the most viciously hateful elements of our society. How you react in the coming hours is vital to the greatness of America.”

Jon Marks is a reporter at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, a sister publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times. jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

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