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Outpouring of support after cemetery desecration

Scott Mekler stood over a row of headstones, many of which lay on the ground at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery. He was waiting to see if one of them belonged to his great-grandmother.

A crew from a monument company had driven a truck with a crane along the small paths in the University City cemetery and was gradually moving from stone to stone, lifting them up and trying to place them back on their stone bases.

Two nights before, more than 150 headstones were knocked over or damaged in the older section of the 129-year-old cemetery, where the majority of the people were buried between 1890 and 1940.

Some of the stones had landed face-down — like one that Mekler suspected belonged to his ancestor — so the names could not be read; others had been cracked in half. The majority showed the names, birth dates and dates of death.

University City Police are investigating the vandalism but have not yet determined whether it was a random act or a case of anti-Semitism, according to Lt. Fred Lemons.

"Nothing has indicated that this is any kind of anti-Semitic attack or any kind of hate crime," Lemons said on Tuesday morning. "And there's nothing to indicate that it’s not. We just haven’t gotten information that it is. We continue to investigate all possibilities."

Jewish communal leaders have cautioned against labeling the vandalism a hate crime without evidence that the perpetrators were targeting Jews.

“If you look at the hate crimes statute, the language requires that the motivating behavior be based on hate towards a victim that is one of a protected class,” said Karen Aroesty, director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Despite the lack of evidence, many of the people who walked throughout the cemetery on Tuesday morning had already formulated conclusions. Some of them connected the vandalism to President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, who they said have incited hatred towards minority groups and inadequately responded to concerns about anti-Semitism in the United States.

The vandalism occurred on the same day that Jewish Community Centers around the country received bomb threats. It was the fourth round of threats in the last two months.

“Everybody is feeling the tension and anxiety; these sorts of incidents only add to that fear and intimidation,” said Aroesty. 

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the community should stop guessing at people’s motivations for these incidents and start looking at the effect. “The chief culminating effect of all these incidents is a clear targeting of Jewish community institutions,” said Rehfeld. “That’s the pattern that is emerging and we need to contain it.”

He added that Federation is currently evaluating its ability to support “a much broader security function. We’re looking at a much more significant investment in it.”

On Tuesday, after a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Trump said, “the anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens released a statement on Facebook that said the act “appears to be anti-Semitic vandalism.”

“Anyone who would seek to divide us through an act of desecration will find instead that they unite us in shared determination,” the statement read. “From their pitiful act of ugliness, we can emerge even more powerful in our faith.”

Mekler, a retired art and languages teacher who worked in St. Louis Public Schools, said that he has family members buried at Jewish cemeteries around St. Louis and that he visits their graves a few times each year. 

“Just to talk to them,” said the 64-year-old. “Just when I get the urge, I come here and then I go over to the United Hebrew Cemetery because my parents are over there. My dad said before he died, ‘I’m going to get a flat headstone, and nobody can mess with it.’ ”

Mekler was one among dozens of people who had heard about the vandalism and visited the cemetery to check on family members’ monuments Tuesday. He said he planned to come back in a few days to check on the status of the headstone of his great-grandmother, Ida Glassman, who died in the early 1970s.

Some people were surveying the grounds on behalf of friends who had relatives at the cemetery and no longer lived in St. Louis.

Most people only knew the general vicinity of where the people they were looking for were buried as they searched the grounds amidst a steady drizzle and news crews. The damage occurred in the southeast corner of the cemetery, which is located at Olive Boulevard and Hanley Road.

Lisa Goffstein, who lives near the cemetery, received calls from relatives Tuesday morning who asked, “Do you know if our family’s stones were part of this?” She found that they were OK.

“Maybe we have a persecution complex, but it’s very scary because we have a history,” said Goffstein, a 61-year-old retired clerical worker.

Joan Rifkin, an elder care provider, was relieved to find her grandparents’ graves intact but still became emotional when asked how she was feeling. 

“It’s disgusting,” she said. “It’s really horrible. It kind of brings you back to what happened in the Holocaust… It’s only a headstone, but it’s the human being that’s buried where the headstone is.”

The Chesed Shel Emeth Society plans to post a listing of the stones that were damaged on its website and Facebook page by Wednesday morning, director Anita Feigenbaum said. On Tuesday afternoon, the society noted on Facebook that names will not be visible on some stones until they have been lifted. 

Feigenbaum could not recall vandalism on such a scale at the cemetery. She said she was focused on the repair efforts and “easing the hearts and minds of Chesed Shel Emeth families.”

She said she received phone calls from other cemeteries around the country, headstone companies, Girl Scouts and a Muslim group “that wants to set up fundraising to help.”

“It’s a beautiful thing to have communities coming together with support and caring for something that is horrible,” said Feigenbaum, who has worked at the cemetery since 2012. 

Jewish Federation has set up the Jewish Cemetery Restoration and Security Fund to assist Chesed Shel Emeth with the vast repairs that will be needed (for more information or to donate, visit jfedstl.org).

Two American Muslim activists launched a crowdfunding campaign Tuesday to raise money for repairs at the cemetery. Within two hours, the fundraising campaign started by Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi had already surpassed its goal of $20,000. They said any remaining funds — after the cemetery is restored — will be allocated to repair any other vandalized Jewish centers.

By 11 a.m. Tuesday, crews had started to work on the stones and Feigenbaum was asking people to leave the cemetery.   

There were two trucks with cranes that crews were using to lift the stones — weighing between 400 and 1,200 pounds — and then set them down atop wood. They would then use a compound to reseal the stones to their bases.

Philip Weiss, owner of Weiss Monument Works and Rosenbloom Monument Company, said that he did not know how long the repairs would take but he planned to devote the rest of the week to the project and that his company is donating its time. He said it was up to the cemetery to decide what it wanted to do with the marble monuments that had broken into pieces.

If a stone needs to be replaced, the cost could be between $1,000 and $1,500, according to Dan Brodsky, chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America.

“The goal is to get everything upright as best as we can to relieve the families’ minds and then assess what the broken ones are and if they can be replaced,” said Weiss, who has been working in the industry for 50 years.

He said he has seen similar vandalism — though not on the same scale — at Jewish and non-Jewish cemeteries and that it often happens when the weather gets warm. 

“It’s always a tragedy when these kids come out and vandalize like this. We feel it’s our obligation to help right this wrong,” he said.

Brodsky, who is also executive director of New Mt. Sinai Cemetery on Gravois Road, said that while there have been an increasing number of bomb threats at high profile targets like JCCs around the country, cemeteries have not seen any such uptick in activity.

“If somebody’s going to be a sick person like that,” he said, “they’re going to do more damage at a community center.”

Gov. Greitens called for volunteers to join him Wednesday at 3 p.m. to help clean up the cemetery.

Despite the society’s efforts to catalog the headstones, there may be no one to contact for some of the plots. As one commenter on the Jewish Light Facebook page put it, “How can the family be contacted when most of the original contact names are deceased?”

Freelance writer Dale Singer and Editor Ellen Futterman contributed to this report.

More than 150 headstones were knocked over or damaged in the older section of Chesed Shel Emeth, a 129-year-old cemetery in University City.