In the three months since more than 100 tombstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery were vandalized, the response from both the local and global community has been significant.
With $260,532 already raised for the Wissinoming cemetery’s restoration fund — $87,577 coming from outside the area — cards and letters are still coming in. Typical are the handwritten letters from children at a Jewish day school in Oakland, Calif., though non-Jews also have been touched and are among the 2,848 making donations.
“It has been incredible how many people have sent in donations and how many have been moved,” said Addie Lewis Klein, director of community engagement for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “I have learned so much about the history of our communities that we can find in our cemeteries and been incredibly moved by the generosity and dedication of the members of our community.
“I hope this unfortunate event inspires people to learn more about their own family history and to help maintain our historic sites.”
According to Klein, the restoration work has picked up pace.
“We hired a project manager, Yael Keller, who’s been on site,” she said. “And we’re working with Joe Ferrannini from Grave Stone Matters.
“He’s been determining how we’re going to restore these stones. It’s difficult in a historic cemetery like Mount Carmel where things are physically tight and there’s a lot of damage.”
The work at Mount Carmel has indeed been challenging, Ferrannini said, although he expects to have restored or replaced some 450 headstones by Memorial Day. He noted that about half of the headstones were vandalized, although not necessarily recently.
“This is a long-term problem that’s been going on for decades,” said the Albany, N.Y.-based Ferrannini, who put together a small local team to do the painstaking work. “I was told there’s 4,500 stones in the cemetery. More than 50 percent need some kind of attention.
“But some of this could be older vandalism or just lack of maintenance, because not all of this was done in one night.”
He said much of the damage at Mount Carmel comes from a combination of natural deterioration of the ground, as well as neglect.
“So much attention needs to be paid to the landscape,” Ferrannini said. “Nature takes its course, and when the ground shifts it can affect the stones.
“But these are not little stones. Most of them are 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. One was 4,500. So there needs to be a long-term plan to change the pattern of neglect. Once the cemetery looks better, hopefully there will be less vandalism.”
Police are also stepping up their efforts.
While there have been no arrests despite what has grown to a $74,000 reward, Philadelphia Police Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum is hopeful the restoration, combined with local awareness of the situation, will prevent further incidents.
“The captain has set up more patrols,” Rosenbaum said. “And since they’re doing fence work and putting in better lighting [some of the funds are being spent on security around the cemetery grounds, including improved lighting], we’ll be able to keep a closer eye on things.
“So we’re not forgetting about it. We probably interviewed 100 to 150 people in the neighborhood. We stopped people walking their dogs and put out a thousand flyers with the reward information.”
The investigation remains open.
By the end of May, six weeks of restoration work will have been completed within the grounds. After that, the plan is to complete the security work over the summer, with an official rededication tentatively scheduled around the High Holidays in September.
“Our attention now is to have a continued maintenance plan,” Klein said. “Because of the way Jews traditionally are buried, leaning of headstones is very likely over time.
“In a historical cemetery there are a lot of leaning and downed stones, and maintenance is a constant problem.”
That’s why Ferrannini said the work is never done.
“It’ll never be finished, but every day is gratifying,” Ferrannini said. “Walking by all these rows that are true again gives me a good feeling.
“Somebody has to care about these people. Whether it’s a Jewish, Catholic or non-denominational, everybody needs a final resting place.”
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