'This Is What Faith Teaches Us': How Muslim Americans Are Coming to Their Jewish Neighbors' Aid as Hate Crimes Spike

At St. Louis cemetery, Jews find hope amid desecration: 'We really made something positive out of this... it has focused people on importance of fighting anti-Semitism and hatred.'

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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Nabiha Quadri and Gwyn Thorpe working together during a cleanup effort at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, University City, Missouri, on February 22, 2017.
Nabiha Quadri and Gwyn Thorpe working together during a cleanup effort at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, University City, Missouri, on February 22, 2017.Credit: Michael Thomas/AFP
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK – Alan Bilinsky had just arrived back in his hometown of St. Louis on Monday when the cemetery where most of his family is buried was desecrated. He was devastated when he heard that some 170 headstones had been toppled and damaged. But there has been a silver lining to the carnage: it has led Muslims and Christians to stand up for St. Louis’ Jews.

St. Louis imams and the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement condemning in strong terms the cemetery desecration, urging local Muslims to donate money toward its restoration. And a different fundraising campaign, started by two Muslim activists from Philadelphia and New York City, raised six times its original goal in its first day alone.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, told Haaretz. “The outpouring of support throughout the world has been tremendous. Everyone feels this cuts close to home.”

Some 2,500 people turned out to help clean and repair the cemetery on Wednesday, and then stayed for a multifaith vigil. (The police have yet to arrest any perpetrators in relation to the hate crime.)

Missouri’s first Jewish governor – St. Louis native Eric Greitens – spoke, along with local rabbis, an imam and a minister. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Missouri for another event, made an unannounced stop at the Jewish cemetery and picked up a rake to pitch in with the cleanup.

Bilinsky, 59, buried his mother at Chesed Shel Emeth just three months ago and returned to visit his terminally ill father. He now lives in Monterey, California, where he works for a nonprofit that builds supportive housing for indigent homeless people with psychiatric illnesses.

On Wednesday morning he and a friend went to see the damage for themselves, intentionally arriving hours before the crowd. Five, six and eight headstones in a row in the cemetery’s old section were pushed off their pedestals, he said. A crew was resetting stones while they were there.

Local resident Theo Richmond cleaning a headstone at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, University City, on February 22, 2017.Credit: Cristina Fletes/AP
Workmen righting toppled Jewish headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, February 22, 2017.Credit: TOM GANNAM/REUTERS
Signs on display outside the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, February 22, 2017.Credit: Michael Thomas/AFP

“I just wanted to come see it and feel it, and look for friends’ headstones. We saw stones of people we knew and took pictures, and sent them to them,” Bilinsky said after his visit.

The cemetery, whose burial society was established in 1888, is a large area in the University City section of the Missouri city. As in most Jewish cemeteries, there are low headstones in various shades of granite, etched in English and Hebrew with Jewish names and dates, shaded by old trees. Narrow lanes weave between sections.

The cemetery has long been sold out, said Beverly Stuhlman, whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are all buried there. Stuhlman, who would say only that she is in her 80s, was born and raised in St. Louis, where she also raised four children of her own and worked as a reading specialist in local elementary schools.

The only burials currently taking place at Chesed Shel Emeth are for people who have long owned plots there. Stuhlman’s own husband is buried at its sister cemetery across town, which was established when Jews in St. Louis realized the original location would soon run out of space. Stuhlman said she was there quite recently to bury a friend, adding, “I have lots of friends there.”

The cemetery has posted a list of the desecrated graves by its entrance, said Bilinsky. The damage was done to the old section, where headstones date back to the early 1900s.

Everyone interviewed by Haaretz noted that the desecration has brought St. Louis residents of all faiths together in a way little has before.

The St. Louis Jewish Federation also immediately started a campaign to raise money for the repair of cemetery damage, and to improve security at all local Jewish institutions. Within two days it had raised close to $100,000, said Federation CEO Andrew Rehfeld. The St. Louis Jewish Community Center was one of the JCCs nationwide that received a bomb threat last month.

‘Great gesture’

Some say they are wary of what is compelling Muslim activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek el-Messidi to raise money for the restoration of a Jewish cemetery.

“I’m a little bit concerned about the Muslim fundraising. I don’t like to say why,” said Stuhlman. “ I have friends who are Muslims, don’t get me wrong. But you don’t know what people’s motives are.”

But younger people greeted the Muslim efforts more enthusiastically.

“I was so happy when I heard about the Muslim fundraising,” said Bilinsky. “I thought it was such a great gesture and important thing. This act in particular will be seen as uniting people, showing people that Muslims and Jews can get together. This is what we need to be doing.”

The cemetery desecration “has had an amazingly positive effect,” said the federation’s Rehfeld. “It has brought focus and clarity in the region about the importance of fighting anti-Semitism and hatred. We really made something very positive out of this.”

The damage has also galvanized his network of family and friends, said Bilinsky. They are discussing what more they can do, individually and as a group, to stand up against racism.

Brooklyn-based Muslim activist Sarsour told Haaretz they may shutter their fundraising effort early, so the funds can be sent immediately.

“We are in touch with the executive director of the cemetery and will be sending the money directly to them,” she wrote by email. Just over a day after launching the fundraising campaign with a $20,000 goal, it had raised more than $108,000.

“They not only want to renovate the cemetery, but have been encouraged to set up a more sophisticated security system so this never happens again,” she wrote. “We hope they will use the money in whatever makes sense for them.”

Asked what motivated her to initiate the campaign, Sarsour responded simply: “This is what our faith teaches us to do.”

She also said it came in response to the backing she has received from the Jewish community, in the face of right-wing smears. Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent and backs anti-Israel boycotts, has worked with left-wing New York Jewish organizations for the past few years. Sarsour was a central organizer of the Women’s March in Washington the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

“The support from my Jewish sisters and brothers has been remarkable, and supporting the cemetery was my way of reciprocating that solidarity,” she said.

“We feel heartened by the support,” said the JCRC’s Picker Neiss. “This is a chance to show up. At the same time, this is not the only thing happening in our world. We want to make sure we’re paying attention to all of the people feeling victimized. And also thinking about what we need to do tomorrow.”

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