Philadelphia Jews Reeling After Hundreds of Graves Vandalized: 'It Hit Home in a Holocaust Kind of Way'

Resident whose family is buried at historic Philadelphia cemetery tells Haaretz that more than 500 graves were destroyed: 'Counting was my way of bearing witness.' ADL offers $10,000 reward.

A man looks at fallen tombstones at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA.
DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

NEW YORK – Nicholas Boonin could not believe what he was seeing. He walked through Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, row by row, counting up the headstones toppled and smashed. There were 537, not including 25 re-set by volunteers on Sunday, the day the damage was discovered.

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Boonin, whose grandparents and great grandparents are buried at the historic cemetery, saw the news of the damage on Facebook at about 2PM Sunday. He immediately drove the 20 minutes to the cemetery. A handful of other people were already there, and soon his rabbi arrived. Boonin spent more than four hours walking through each row, counting the headstones toppled like Legos, until darkness fell.

“No matter where you looked there were headstones knocked over. Big ones. Some were broken. Some of the smaller ones it looked like they whacked with a sledgehammer,” Boonin said in an interview to Haaretz. Some of the headstones had been tethered to their pedestal stones with steel rods, so it took a great deal of force and tools to destroy, he said.

“I went grave by grave, counting. All these Jewish names, the Sarahs and Sophies and Samuels and Joshuas. It hit home in a weird Holocaust kind of way. It’s a real violation,” said the retired exhibit designer.

Men help lift a fallen tombstone at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA.
DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

Mt. Carmel is a small cemetery, spread across roughly 5 acres, Boonin said. It dates to the late 19th century and is located on a corner where there are several other cemeteries as well, most of them not Jewish. It’s in an area known as old northeast Philadelphia, in which many Jews resided until about a generation ago. Boonin’s great-grandparents, who had a millinery business, moved there as soon as they arrived from Riga, Latvia, he said.

“When I heard I went right away and expected a couple of gravestones knocked over, but when I got there it was a very, very different scene. We were shocked to have no words to describe” how it looked, Boonin said. “Counting was my way of bearing witness.”

Joseph Levine & Sons, one of the oldest Jewish funeral homes in Philadelphia, doesn’t handle many burials at Mt. Carmel, because so few are conducted there these days, said Adam Levine, a 5th generation owner of the family business. The last one they handled there was in 2015, he said.

Gravestone vandalism is not unusual in the area’s Jewish cemeteries, Levine said in an interview. Most don’t get attention because they affect far fewer graves and because Sunday’s happened just days after similar destruction at a St. Louis Jewish cemetery. “It happens,” he said. “Kids go rushing through cemeteries pushing over headstones.”

It hasn’t happened in anyone’s memory on such a large scale in any area Jewish cemetery, said Levine and other Philadelphia sources.

The destruction has brought together Philadelphia’s Jews — and non-Jews. Along with Boonin and a handful of other area Jewish residents, including rabbis, a half dozen Muslims were among the first to arrive at the cemetery as soon as the news broke, said Rabbi Shawn Zevit.

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Zevit, rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, a Reconstructionist synagogue, arrived with a handful of other rabbis who had been at a Jewish organizing training elsewhere in the city. Tarek el-Messidi, a Muslim activist in Philadelphia who co-organized a successful crowd funding campaign to repair the cemetery in St. Louis vandalized last week, was on his way to the airport for a flight, Zevit said, but instead came to Mt. Carmel Cemetery, luggage in tow.

Click to watch Tarek El-Messidi live from Mt. Carmel cemetery:

“The gut wrenching part is the magnitude of the damage,” Zevit said in an interview. But “none of us are feeling isolated or afraid. We know we’re strong here in Philadelphia,” where there are strong interfaith relationships between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Zevit said that the national political climate has lead to the surge in anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Muslim acts. “There is a stoking of a culture in which acts, an attempt to strike fear into communities, is not only not being dismissed, but is being condoned,” he said. It’s leading to “people feeling permission in a moment like this” to do hateful things.

Philadelphia Jewish groups quickly stepped up. The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is opening a mailbox to which people can send donations to underwrite the cemetery’s restoration, federation CEO Naomi Adler told Haaretz.

And synagogues and other Jewish groups in Narberth, a Philadelphia suburb, quickly organized a vigil held at the town’s War Memorial on Sunday evening, said Rabbi Simcha Zevit, spiritual leader of the Narberth Havurah.

“I’m just devastated” by the cemetery desecration, she said. “I feel a mixture of outrage and sadness, and a strong determination to turn things around.”

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Participants in the vigil included families from the nearby Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy, a large Jewish day school that goes through high school. The school’s director of Jewish life, Rabbi Will Keller, sent an email Sunday to school families saying that the school will dedicate Torah and Jewish study “to the memory of those whose graves were disturbed.” The school is also sending source sheets home with students so that families can learn Torah together “in honor of the dead.”