Cemetery Restoration Underway as Police Investigation Continues

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Cleanup, restoration and mapping efforts are underway at Mount Carmel Cemetery, as the police investigation continues. Jon Marks

If possible, what’s transpired since initial reports of vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery began to spread about 10 days ago has been enough to wake the dead.

Between the parade of concerned family members and curiosity seekers trampling the grounds, daily cleanup crews sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, an onslaught of local and national media, and concerned representatives of others faiths, a steady stream of visitors has arrived.

Reaction has gone well beyond the cemetery’s rusty iron gates at Frankford and Cheltenham avenues. Even the White House had a response, with President Donald Trump calling the United States “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms” during his Feb. 28 address to Congress.

While a Philadelphia police and FBI investigation remains ongoing, few developments have been reported since a cemetery visitor originally spotted the vandalism, which resulted in about 100 headstones being knocked over and/or damaged.

The investigation did lead to a revised timeline indicating the incident occurred five to 10 days prior to initial reports. The caretaker of another cemetery noticed the damage on Feb. 21 but did not report it.

A reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of those involved — which has reached $69,000 — has not led to any answers.

“We have this huge reward,” said Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum of the Philadelphia Police Department’s 15th District, who’s heading the investigation. “I wish we would get some tips. We’re perplexed.”

While the mystery continues, a crowd of thousands turned out for a March 2 “Stand Against Hate” rally at Independence Mall, where Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, among others, addressed the crowd. The rally was organized by the Jewish Federation in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League.

There has also been a concerted effort to raise money and awareness, including a March 6 “I Stand With the J” evening of solidarity and discussion at the Kaiserman JCC and a March 8 rally by Kehillah of Chester County on the steps of the Chester County Courthouse.

About 180 people attended the JCC Kaiserman event, where U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 2), state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17) and representatives from the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Lower Merion Police Department pledged their support and offered assurances.

“The JCC, our town square … safe and secure,” said Amy Krulik, the JCC’s CEO.

Meanwhile, as of press time, the Chester County event was slated to feature West Chester Mayor and state Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D-District 156), state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-District 19) and numerous local rabbis and leaders of other faiths.

The diverse coming together of people has typified the community in recent days.

“The people who have come out have been incredible,” said Abbey Frank, assistant director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which is supervising the cemetery cleanup effort. “What an interfaith group it’s been.

“People with family members buried here and those who don’t know this part of Philadelphia at all are really moved to be here.”

Volunteers divided the work between cleaning up the site, with Jewish Federation buying rakes and 300 leaf bags per day, and mapping — painstakingly recording the location and condition of each grave.

“It’s been like a deep spring cleaning,” said Addie Lewis Klein, Jewish Federation’s director of community engagement. “Next week we’re going to start our plans for restoration.

“We need to do this with an eye toward preservation. We’ll be professionally reaffixing the stones that have been toppled. People have been very generous.”

Jewish Federation CEO Naomi Adler said repairing the headstones may take a couple months, although a cemetery rededication is tentatively being planned for May.

Exactly what prompted the incident is open to conjecture.

The Jewish Exponent got little response from a canvas of neighborhood residents. Those who did open their doors seemed skeptical the vandalism occurred without an ulterior motive.

“I’ve never seen anybody in the cemetery, but I wasn’t looking,” said lifetime resident Robert Buchter, who was hearing about the incident for the first time. “That’s disgusting. That’s terrible.

“Kids goofing around, I could see knocking one or two over. But this seems like they did it on purpose.

“I don’t know if they did it on purpose because of it being a Jewish cemetery, but I’m really sorry to hear that.”

Other neighborhood residents have gotten involved with the cleanup effort.

“The other day we had a man who was a landscaper who had taken a day off from work who kept coming with his pickup truck driving leaves and debris to a Dumpster,” Frank said.

“It’s not just yard debris, but a lot of glass, bottles and dead animals.”

Frank said she was in Washington, D.C., for a national conference when she found about the incident, which came shortly after a similar episode at Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in St. Louis and just days before another incident in Rochester, N.Y.

“Lucky for us, the JCRC executive director from St. Louis, Rori Picker Neiss, was at the conference,” she said.

“They had just dealt with this, so we sat by her side for few hours. Now I’ve been in touch with people in Rochester. Sadly, we’re creating a network of people and are passing our knowledge on.”

While the cemetery desecration has horrified many, it’s also created a bond, which was noted by speakers at the March 2 rally.

“We are all here to take a stand against those vile actions,” Wolf said.

“They are hate crimes against the Jewish community and hate crimes against each and every Pennsylvanian.

“Pennsylvania was a place founded centuries ago with the idea that all are welcome here, that everyone can practice his or her faith as they see fit. We still live by that grand idea today.”

Imam Kenneth Nuriddin of Philadelphia Masjid expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m not here as representative of the Muslim community,” he said. “I’m here mainly today because these are my friends — people I’ve worked with for a number of years.

“As a people, we are all here together today standing in a shared freedom space in the shadow of buildings that produced documents for us and enabled us to realize how we are to respond to the issues we face.

“One of the documents begins, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary.’

“And it is now necessary for all of us to come together and stand as a people.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729

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