Mapping Survey Pinpoints 553 Disturbed Headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery

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Ronen Rybowski heard the news and knew he had to do something.

He had friends here, some of whom may have had loved ones buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery. He knew the anguish of the local Jewish community.

So he reached out.

After speaking with Mount Carmel caretaker Richard Levy, the president of Behar Mapping in East Rutherford, N.J., hired Keystone Aerial Surveys to determine just how much damage there was.

“After my conversation with Mr. Levy, I got one of my vendors to fly over the cemetery and take high resolution imagery,” said Rybowski, who’s been running the 50-year-old company for about three years. “The first step we did was to get the algorithm that marks all the headstones and identify the ones that aren’t in position the way they should be.”

The report by Keystone, a national company with a local operation at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, showed 553 of the headstones had been disturbed.

While that number is significantly higher than anything previously reported, it’s also misleading.

That’s because they’re drawing no conclusions in terms of whether those disturbances were caused by vandalism, wear and tear or other forces.

“We don’t try to get into a police issue and determine which were vandalized,” said the 33-year-old Rybowski, a native of Israel. “Disturbed means something is on the ground or not standing on the footing as it should be.

“We create a density map, which breaks down the extent of the damage. I visited the site as well. I couldn’t get inside, but from what I could see from the road, the amount of damage I would not define as normal.

“This is a relatively small cemetery, about 5 acres. We wanted to use the same technology and tools we use for bigger cemeteries to help Mount Carmel quantify the damage and get back in order.”

That’s why he called Keystone.

“We do aerial data acquisition, mostly mapping survey and engineering surveys,” said David Day, executive vice president of Keystone. “We get laser imagery used for accuracy in measuring, which is precise up to a few centimeters.

“We get about five to 10 calls a year for emergencies. We do tornado response all over the country. We responded to the [2015] Amtrak derailment in the middle of the night. We were aware of the news report, and I thought of Ronen. I figured he’d want to do something.

“A lot of folks were surprised how close it was to us — we’re about 4 miles away. We’re glad we were able to help out.”

Thanks to those images — taken by a high-powered camera from the floor of a seven-seat plane — Behar Mapping was able to pinpoint the extent of the damage, breaking it down by color coding.

“I didn’t do a count, but I’d say as a rule of thumb each acre usually has about 1,000 graves,” Rybowski said. “With this, you can count how many have disturbed headstones. You can’t always know unless you go through the process of mapping.”

While the mapping was underway, Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson announced that he is introducing legislation to increase the penalties for those who vandalize cemeteries to $2,000 per grave.

Under Philadelphia’s Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism current code, mass vandalism, such as what occurred at Mount Carmel, is considered a single offense. Johnson’s bill would make each “disturbance” a separate offense and would cover any such act, regardless of the motive. A third offense could lead to up to 30 days of imprisonment.

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

An aerial photograph of Mount Carmel Cemetery helped pinpoint which headstones were damaged, whether by vandals or other causes.