Cemetery desecration, bomb threats roil Philly’s Jewish community
PHILADELPHIA — Less than a week after vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, the same thing happened in southeastern Pennsylvania — in addition to bomb threats that forced the evacuation of area schools and Jewish Community Centers.
Reports first surfaced early on Feb. 26 that more than 100 headstones had been overturned at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the once-heavily Jewish Wissinoming section of Northeast Philadelphia. Police were dispatched to the scene. The case remains under investigation, although there are no security cameras on site or indication of any witnesses.
And on Feb. 27 both the Perelman Jewish Day School’s Stern Center and the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center, which share a campus in Wynnewood, a suburb on Philadelphia’s western edge, were evacuated after a phoned-in bomb threat. Both facilities were evacuated for about an hour as the Lower Merion Police Department checked campus buildings.
Similar threats were made at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., which also was evacuated, as was the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, housed in the same building. In addition, JCCs in York, Harrisburg and Wilmington, Del., were evacuated, and centers in New York, North Carolina and Indiana, among other states, also received threats.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statement condemning the acts.
“Any anti-Semitic act or act of intimidation aimed at Jewish institutions and people in Pennsylvania is truly reprehensible and we must find those responsible and hold them accountable. This is not who we are as Americans or Pennsylvanians,” he said.
For now, authorities, Jewish leaders and the Jewish community at large are trying to get their heads around what has happened in a matter of days.
As with the incident at Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in the University City section of St. Louis, at Mount Carmel there were no outward indications that the vandalism was explicitly anti-Semitic in nature. Still, Nancy Baron-Baer, director of the ADL’s Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware region, labeled it a “hate crime.”
“At this moment, we’re not yet sure if it’s an act of anti-Semitism,” said Baron-Baer, who indicated the ADL was offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible, “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.”
Upon viewing the damage, Tarek El-Messidi, founder of the Islamic organization Celebrate Mercy, which raises money on behalf of victims of such vandalism and intolerance, doesn’t need any further convincing.
“It’s really hard to argue this is not intentional,” said El-Messidi, who indicated that his organization raised more than $130,000 through Facebook and other methods to help repair the St. Louis cemetery after previously raising $200,000 for victims of the San Bernardino terrorist bombing. “Especially when you now have two cemeteries targeted within a week, it’s unlikely this is just a random coincidence.
“I’d say it seems to be motivated by bigotry.”
That’s what sparked a Feb. 27 meeting of local faith leaders. Rabbis, ministers, priests and imams alike spoke of the need to tackle such incidents together, saying an affront against one is an affront against all.
“I am deeply saddened by these senseless acts of anti-Semitism,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in a statement that was read aloud by Monsignor Daniel Kutys. “Violence and hate against anyone simply because of who they are is inexcusable. For Catholics, anti-Semitism is blasphemy. As a community, we need to stand up for one another.”
Hearing such universal support is an indication how deep-seated this issue is, Jewish leaders said.
“The message is the Jewish community is not alone,’” said Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple. “We have true friends and allies who care and want to take a stand.
“It also makes a statement this is not just a Jewish issue. This is a human issue.”
“Out of an atmosphere of intolerance, hatred and bigotry, comes a renewed effort of unity,” said Rabbi Robert Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am.
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.”
Adler, who attended a quickly organized 30-minute Sunday night candlelight vigil at the Narberth War Memorial outside of the city, also touted a “Stand Against Hate” gathering at Independence Mall on March 2. (There was also a candlelight vigil at the University of Pennsylvania on Feb. 27.)
“We are naming the hate and we will not stand for it anymore,” she said. “We are working with volunteers and professionals to make sure every headstone or grave marker is either replaced or repaired.”
In that spirit, the Jewish Federation began an organized cleanup of the Mount Carmel grounds Feb. 28. Every day from noon to 4 p.m., up to 50 volunteers will be working to restore the cemetery.
“These vandals underestimate our resolve,” said Rabbi Will Keller, the director of Jewish Life at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, who was one of about a dozen clergy members present at the Narberth vigil.
Rabbi Zimcha Zevit of the Narberth Havurah, accompanied with a guitar, led the crowd of about 200 in Psalms 121 and 42, as well as other selections.
Meantime, the National Museum of American Jewish History began a project to preserve the stories of the people buried at the cemetery. It is asking those with friends or loved ones interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery to share a picture (and/or the headstone, if available) and a personal story of up to 150 words.
And Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon tweeted that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will pay for and install security cameras at the cemetery, while Philadelphia Building Trades would participate in the cemetery cleanup.
At Perelman, the school’s leadership tried to find some positive meaning in the bomb threat, describing it as a teachable moment. Head of School Judy Groner and Principal Wendy Smith spoke with the students after they returned to the building.
“I told them that they cooperated beautifully and that we have procedures in place that help their teachers and school administrators take care of them,” Groner said.
When a second-grader asked, “Why would someone make a mean phone call to the school?” Groner responded, “Sometimes people make bad choices. We are lucky to be in a school where students make good choices and where teachers teach students to make good choices.”
All the incidents have attracted national attention — and action.
Several congressmen announced on Feb. 27 the re-launch of the Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism in the House of Representatives for the 115th Congress.
And the New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect urged President Donald Trump to take a stronger stand on anti-Semitism.
“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.”
A week ago, Trump did issue a condemnation of anti-Semitism, but reports surfaced this week that Trump’s first budget may eliminate special envoy positions at the State Department that work to combat anti-Semitism.
Jon Marks is a senior reporter and Andy Gotlieb is managing editor of the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.