After desecration at Philly Jewish cemetery, groups repair damage and authorities seek vandals
Authorities are offering $13,000 for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was behind the vandalism of hundreds of gravesites at a historic Jewish cemetery late Saturday evening in Northeast Philadelphia.
Police say they received a call around 9:30 a.m. Sunday from someone reporting that three of their relatives' headstones had been knocked over, but when authorities arrived to Mount Carmel Cemetery off of Frankford Avenue, they found scores of other headstones strewn about the site and other markings badly damaged.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom synagogue in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia said he and others who came out to the cemetery Sunday afternoon counted more than 500 graves desecrated at the site.
"If you've had a few beers and you go in and you knock over some tombstones, even if there's anger in your heart, that's very different than hundreds, which clearly are targeted here," Zevit said.
"This was a hateful act, an attempt to create fear and to tarnish the memory of those who have died and attack their dignity," he said.
A rabbi at Mt. Carmel Cemetery says he's counted more than 500 Jewish grave sites vandalized. Volunteers picking up knocked over headstones. pic.twitter.com/B3VWejd0YX— Bobby Allyn (@BobbyAllyn) February 26, 2017
Volunteers fanned out across the cemetery to help prop up toppled tombstones that were salvageable, while others who turned out to show support gathered in small groups to chant peace songs in Hebrew.
Some gather around hundreds of damaged Jewish gravesites at Mt. Carmel Cemetery and recite a peace chant. pic.twitter.com/3hU8GV33w5— Bobby Allyn (@BobbyAllyn) February 26, 2017
Zevit said the 127-year-old cemetery, which has not been accepting new plots for some time, was especially vulnerable.
"This is a historic cemetery that's not overseen in the same way as a more active cemetery would be, so you see the vulnerable of a cemetery like this for target," he said.
Nicholas Boonin, of New Jersey, whose grandmother and other family are buried at Mount Carmel, walked slowly along the defaced graves, carrying a box of tissues with a stricken look on his face.
"This is the work of jerks," Boonin said haltingly. "I don't ascribe any particular intelligence to it."
None of graves belonging to Boonin's relatives were targeted. Nonetheless, seeing the headstones of so many Jewish peoples' final resting place destroyed was visceral to him.
"To just go through and see Idas, and Roses and Samuels," said Boonin, pausing for several moments. "It hurt."
The incident follows a similar act of targeted vandalism last week at a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis area, which was among a spate of other anti-Semitic acts in recent weeks, including dozens of bomb threats. President Trump denounced the acts, saying they 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."
In a statement released Sunday evening, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said his "heart breaks for the families who found their loves ones' headstones toppled."
"We are doing all we can to find the perpetrators who desecrated this final resting place, and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Kenney said. "Hate is not permissible in Philadelphia."
Police announced that the Anti-Defamation League is offering $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction tied to the vandalism, and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 has contributed $3,000 to help catch the perpetrators.
Supporters have already donated more than $6,000 to a GoFundMe campaign devoted to grave repair and reconstruction.
Rue Landau, who leads the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which enforces civil rights laws in the city, said the cash reward ups the stakes, yet catching perpetrators in these kinds of cases is not easy.
"The people who are committing acts of hate and violence feel emboldened," Landau said. "They feel that this is a norm. They can do it. They can get away with it, and in fact, they feel like they're protected."
Landau said more elected officials need to unequivocally reject acts of hate.
"The messages need to be loud and clear from everybody who is running our country right now that these acts of hate, whether it's anti-Semitism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, they all must stop now."
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