“Vandals Tear Through Cemetery in Phila.”
“Vandalism at Cemetery Stirs Communal Concern”
These are all headlines about the Mount Carmel Cemetery, which has been thrust into the news in the past few weeks after more than a hundred of its tombstones were toppled.
The act of vandalism — which echoed a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis — made front pages and nightly news broadcasts across the country.
Legislators have introduced new bills in reaction to the vandalism at Mount Carmel. Jewish groups have labeled the headstone-toppling a hate crime, called it “unconscionable,” “sickening,” said it “defies belief” and that “it was not something we thought we would see in our lifetimes in the United States of America.”
But none of the headlines above are from a recent story; rather, they date to the 1980s and represent just two other times when Mount Carmel was targeted by vandals.
Vandalism of burial grounds, Jewish and otherwise, is a common occurrence.
According to Emily Ford of New Orleans’ Oak and Laurel Cemetery Preservation LLC, who has written extensively about cemetery vandalism: “Every year, hundreds of cemeteries suffer crimes of toppled stones, graffiti, desecration of remains and outright demolition.”
In 2016, according to data she collected, almost 2,000 individual markers were affected in the United States. Most cemetery vandalism appears to be perpetrated by the proverbial disaffected youth — white male teenagers between the ages of 14 and 20 — and it is not always clear how to counteract it.
Some experts recommend leaving cemetery gates open, because closed gates may represent the lure of the forbidden. Others advocate more security, like cameras and foot patrols.
In Philadelphia, the physical decline of Philadelphia’s cemeteries has been well documented. The 2016 NFDA “Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections” reveals that in 2015 the rate of cremation surpassed that of burial for the first time. In addition, Jewish families often move out of the neighborhoods where prior generations were buried, and cemeteries that were once frequently populated are abandoned. These empty spaces make appealing targets for neighborhood kids, who often loiter in them, drink there and litter.
In 2015, the Exponent described the scene at Upper Darby’s Har Zion Cemetery: “Trash is easily visible: a Skittles wrapper in a foot-deep hole, a 16-ounce Wawa coffee cup, a crushed plastic water bottle. On one grave, two trash bags full of empty ice cream and other food containers were kept company by a neighboring diet mango green tea jug. The headstones are askew, each slightly leaning to the left or the right. Some are completely toppled over. Unfortunately, cemetery vandalism and neglect is becoming more and more prevalent at some Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia.”
Recalling that coverage, we decided to do a deep dive into the musty, undigitized Jewish Exponent archives to see how often this kind of thing hit the headlines in the past, and what the circumstances were in those instances. We found archived records of vandalism going back to 1966, though it certainly happened prior to 1966 as well.
Most articles were about swastikas — drawn on school walls, trash cans, street corners, shop windows, synagogues, country clubs and on and on. We also found several articles detailing broken synagogue windows. Some incidents caused enormous community response — they went viral, as we’d say now — while others simply faded into the background.
Almost half of the 49 incidents were perpetrated by juveniles or were suspected, by police and community members, to be the work of juveniles. In one case, a boy as young as 11 was involved. In another case, the young perp was assigned community service and told by the judge to watch Schindler’s List.
While we still don’t know the identity of the perpetrators of this most recent act of vandalism against Mount Carmel, perhaps something can be learned from past events. Below, some major instances of Jewish cemetery vandalism as found in our pages over the years.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747
What: Twenty-five tombstones were overturned by vandals at Chevra Bikur Cholim Cemetery, paint was splattered on stones at Mount Sinai Cemetery and obscene words were scribbled on tombstones in Adath Jeshrun.
Where: 1853 Bridge St.; 1901 Bridge St.; 1855 Bridge St.
Who: “Several youths have been questioned but there have been no arrests.”
What: Eighty-one gravestones were toppled at Montefiore Cemetery.
Where: 600 Church Road, Jenkintown
Who: Police and the Jewish Community Relations Council suspected a group of teenagers who they believed were responsible for similar incidents in Abington Township’s non-Jewish cemeteries.
What: More than 100 tombstones overturned at Mount Carmel Cemetery; ground littered with discarded beer cartons and beer bottles; one stone had a swastika and “Hile Hitler”[sic] on it. It was the second weekend in a row when the cemetery experienced vandalism.
When: Oct. 3, 1982
Where: Frankford and Cheltenham aves.
Who: Two juveniles were arrested specifically for desecration; another 14 to 20 juveniles were arrested for loitering and disorderly conduct in relation to the same incident. Despite the graffiti, the police captain said the incident was not anti-Semitic. “It was vandalism and pranks,” he said.
GOING VIRAL: Several weeks after the arrests, members of the JDL — believing there was a police cover-up — put up signs offering a cash reward for the arrest of the perpetrators. They also contacted a KYW-TV reporter and told her the cemetery had been targeted, again, by anti-Semitic vandalism. The TV station broadcast a story that the JDL was patrolling the cemetery to prevent further anti-Semitic violence. Photos accompanying the TV report purported to show new vandalism, but in fact used a photo of the vandalism from Oct. 3. KYW-TV later said they had been led to believe the story was current. The JDL continued to assert there were further acts of vandalism beyond the Oct. 3 event. The ADL stepped in to hold a community meeting to adjudicate. The Exponent’s conclusion? “It is clear that at some point during October the cemetery was vandalized.”
What: Roughly 50 tombstones were toppled at Har Jehuda Cemetery.
When: June 1986
Where: 8400 Lansdowne Ave., Upper Darby
Who: The president and general manager of the cemetery told the Exponent: “It’s not a religious thing, just miserable children.”
What: Seventy-eight tombstones were knocked over at Mount Carmel Cemetery; some were defaced with graffiti. Others were broken, as were obelisks and slabs; pieces of stone were thrown at other stones. It was the second such incident in recent months; a smaller number of tombstones were knocked over the November prior.
When: February 1989
Where: Frankford and Cheltenham aves.
Who: The cemetery’s superintendent suspected local youths from the nearby Wissinoming Park playground. The ADL said, “According to the information it has thus far been able to obtain, there is no reason to believe that vandalism was motivated by anti-Semitism.”
What: 124 gravestones were knocked over at Adath Jeshrun Cemetery.
Where: 1855 Bridge St.
Who: The Exponent quoted the executive director of Congregation Adath Jeshrun, who “thinks the perpetrators were a group of kids from the area.”
What: Seventy stones were overturned at Har Zion Cemetery in a period of months.
Where: 1201 MacDade Blvd., Collingdale
Who: Unclear. “Whether due to vandalism or neglect — or some combination of the two — Harley Felstein, founder and president of Jewish R.E.A.C.H. Inc. (Restoring, Educating, Administering, Cemetery History), said this is something that happens across the country,” the Exponent wrote.