The range of emotions swirling through Naomi Adler’s mind has come full circle.
From the time the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia found out about the late February vandalism that resulted in some 275 headstones and monuments being knocked over or damaged at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia, repairing the cemetery became a mission.
Returning to Mount Carmel on Oct. 20 and seeing the efforts put into restoring that hallowed ground left her with an immense feeling of pride and gratitude.
“What goes through my mind, honestly, is when I first found out about it and sorted through what was the right thing to do,” she said during a walk-through in preparation for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s Oct. 24 cemetery tour. “Because our mission normally is to work with the living.
“At the same time, this felt like a moment of vulnerability for our whole community. That was just a gut-wrenching feeling of complete disgust, and now I feel like we restored a little bit of love and respect to sacred ground. It feels good to say we took care of our people.”
The 275 stones have been repaired, along with the shoring up of 228 additional stones deemed unstable.
Kenney recalled the time he helped the son of a distraught man put his father’s fallen headstone in place.
“These are the kind of folks who could’ve been my neighbors,” he said after completing his tour, during which, in accordance with Jewish tradition, he stopped to place a stone upon some of the restored graves. “Maybe some of them were.”
Kenney took aim at those who would commit desecrations.
“People seem to have no respect or decency when it comes to honoring places like this that should be sacred and peaceful,” said Kenney, who, at one point, admitted he was getting “verklempt” witnessing the scene.
“These folks went through a lot in their lives and now we have Nazis and white supremacists marching through a college in Virginia with the president of the United States saying there ‘were good people on both sides,’” he said in reference to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville this past August. “No, there weren’t good people on both sides. One side was nothing but bad people. But it gives rise and approval to people who feel the way those folks felt in the 1920s and ’30s that they were the supreme race.
“There is no supreme race. We’re all equal under God, and this country is losing that attitude.”
The repairs at Mount Carmel required a massive effort on the part of more than 300 volunteers. Repairing individual monuments, which averaged 1,600 pounds — and as much as 4,400 pounds when the base of the headstone was included — required 12 professional masons. The average time spent fixing each monument was 105 minutes.
The repairs were made possible with $288,000, which the Jewish Federation raised from 2,984 donors.
“I’m proud of this community and the work we have done to restore Mount Carmel to a place of dignity and to honor the lives of those there,” said Addie Lewis Klein, the Jewish Federation’s director of community engagement, who coordinated the project. “I’m proud the community entrusted the Jewish Federation to get the work done.
“When we took on this project, no one had ever done anything like it. I didn’t even know what to expect. It likely took just minutes for the vandals to knock these headstones over, but the repairs took a dedicated team of trained professionals many weeks.”
The incident at Mount Carmel, coupled with similar incidents in St. Louis and a series of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country, led to the Jewish Federation-led Stand Against Hate rally on March 2 at Independence Mall.
Shortly after, plans were put in place for the restoration of Mount Carmel, which still has 315 monuments in need of repair due to natural causes or previous vandalism.
On Oct. 22, more than three dozen volunteers came out for a final cleanup in anticipation of Kenney’s visit.
“We know we can’t do this for everyone, but we could make a statement here and we did,” Adler said. “We made a decision to go above and beyond, because we had donors that helped us do that.
“The non-Jewish world should hear that we are not going to let this happen. Even though we know we’ll never be able to say for sure this was a hate crime, we knew this vandalism was exceedingly destructive to the Jewish community here. This kind of desecration equals anti-Semitism and hatred and cannot be allowed to stand.”