Before Philadelphia suffered from a cemetery desecration of its own, local residents were helping a St. Louis-area cemetery recover from a similar incident.
Those residents included Tarek El-Messidi, who said his Islamic organization, Celebrate Mercy, helped raise about $130,000 for Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in University City, Mo., after 154 of its tombstones were overturned on Feb. 20. Joining in the effort was Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian American and backer of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel who was one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington in January.
“We’re a nonprofit started in 2010 based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad,” said El-Messidi. “We try to mobilize funds worldwide for campaigns of compassion.
“We like to respond to evil with good campaigns. That’s why we were campaigning for St. Louis last week. … And we have enough funds to cover both St. Louis and Philadelphia.”
El-Messidi said the desecration could just as easily have been targeted toward Muslims.
“There have been so many mosques vandalized over the past year,” El-Messidi said. “It’s really scary because both communities feel targeted right now. It’s unfortunate it took a tragedy like this to bring our communities together.”
Such actions are appreciated by Andrew Rehfeld and the St. Louis Jewish community, which he said numbers around 60,000.
“My heart is warmed by the outpouring of interfaith support,” said Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, who once lived in suburban Philadelphia, “particularly with people and groups with which we may have profoundly different views.
“I have very publicly expressed my thanks in a general way for these efforts, including noting the contributions by our Muslim brothers and sisters at my public remarks during the public vigil.
“We will continue to work together in a spirit of collaborative partnership with any group to help them get the dollars they raised to the cemetery and more broadly to our community. And we will be delighted to announce and celebrate those gifts and efforts — very publicly by name — when that happens.”
What’s most encouraging is how their joint efforts have largely rectified a terrible situation.
“I want to relieve people’s anxiety,” said Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of Chesed Shel Emeth. “They can feel safe and secure their loved ones are back in place.”
Meantime, St. Louis-area Jewish organizations hope that the vandalism hasn’t served as an open invitation to others across the country — but the fear is there.
“We’ve been hearing from ancestors of people buried there who live on the East Coast and all over the country,” Rehfeld said. “I’ve watched people at the cemetery sobbing at the headstones of loved ones.”
Rehfeld said the vandalism has rocked the St. Louis Jewish community, whose Federation views it a part of a larger trend in the area. Within the last year, Rehfeld noted, there were two day school evacuations and a bomb threat at the JCC.
Neither the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) nor St. Louis police, however, has determined the Chesed Shel Emeth vandalism was anti-Semitic.
“There are no indicators that they were intentionally hitting a Jewish cemetery,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Missouri/Southern Illinois office of the ADL. “There’s no graffiti or anything left behind — other than terrible pictures of headstones that were knocked over.”
Aroesty said the last time the state experienced similar anti-Semitism was in 2004 in Springfield, when a cemetery was desecrated with swastikas.
Since assessing the extent of the damage at Chesed Shel Emeth, the local Jewish community has tried as quickly as possible to repair it.
Rehfeld contacted Eric Greitens, the new elected governor of Missouri, who happens to be Jewish. Greitens promptly issued a plea to the federal government for assistance.
On Feb. 22, the local Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and the governor’s office held a cleanup day at the cemetery, inviting the public to pitch in. In addition, a monuments company volunteered its labor to help restore some of the fallen headstones.
Shortly before a planned vigil, Rehfeld received a call telling him there would be a surprise guest attending: Vice President Mike Pence.
“I found myself walking with Anita Feigenbaum, Pence and Greitens,” Rehfeld said, “then standing with them on the back of a pickup truck. I said to the group, ‘There’s only one response to this. We name it. We condemn it, and we do something about it.’”
“There’s no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism,” Pence said. “I must tell you, the people in Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this place. …
“And I want to thank you for that inspiration, for showing the world what America is all about.”
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