Vandals destroy grave markers at NE Jewish cemetery

Unrest in peace: More than 100 grave markers were toppled at Mount Carmel Cemetery, Frankford and Cheltenham avenues. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

A Northeast Philadelphia Jewish cemetery has become the latest touchstone in a national dialogue about religious and cultural tolerance after vandals toppled more than 100 grave markers there early Sunday.

A visitor to Mount Carmel Cemetery, at Frankford and Cheltenham avenues, discovered the damage that morning and reported it to police. By Monday afternoon, media reports of the incident had prompted President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, to declare Trump’s condemnation of the act during a White House news conference.

“The president continues to be deeply disappointed and concerned by the reports of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries,” Spicer said while reading from a printed statement. “The cowardly destruction in Philadelphia this weekend comes on top of similar accounts from Missouri and threats made to Jewish Community Centers around the country. The president continues to condemn these and any other form of anti-semitic hateful acts in the strongest terms. … No one in America should feel afraid to follow the religion of their choosing freely and openly.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Mayor Jim Kenney and numerous other elected officials also issued statements condemning the vandalism.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jared Solomon, whose district includes the cemetery, hosted a gathering of lawmakers, police and community leaders at the site to demonstrate unity and discuss efforts to repair the damage.

“Our hearts go out to the families who had to hear about this horrible news,” Solomon said. “All of us support the police and law enforcement in bringing the perpetrators of this horrible act to justice as soon as possible. … We are united as ever and we will rise above this. Together we will not only tolerate diversity in the neighborhood, we will embrace it.”

Capt. Anthony Luca, commander of the Philadelphia police’s 15th district, said that a relative of one of the people buried at Mount Carmel discovered the toppled stones on Sunday morning. Investigators figure the vandalism had occurred after midnight.

Police counted more than 100 toppled grave markers in an initial assessment. Some in the Jewish community have reportedly cited a much greater number of several hundred. Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said on Tuesday that volunteers have been walking the grounds of the cemetery and mapping the damaged stones.

“We’ve had calls from all over the country and as far as Israel from people asking about (the graves of) their family members,” Adler said.

City Councilman Bobby Henon, whose 6th district includes the cemetery and neighboring Wissinoming Park, said that members of the city’s building trades unions have volunteered to help with the cleanup, while the Electricians Local 98 has pledged to install new security equipment to deter future vandalism there.

“It’s a sad day, a cowardly act of vandalism,” Henon said. “To desecrate a final resting place is not what we expect. … The anti-semitism that is going on around this nation does not belong anywhere.”

Police have classified the incident as “institutional vandalism” rather than a “hate crime” in the absence of evidence regarding the specific motivations of the unidentified culprits, Luca said. But authorities have also noted that non-Jewish cemeteries occupy each of the three other street corners at Frankford and Cheltenham. Yet, the vandals apparently targeted only Mount Carmel.

“What we saw here on Sunday is not new,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, “but it’s harrowing, anxiety producing and something no one should have to see.”

Baron-Baer added that the incident underscores the need for people to report any suspected intimidation when they witness it.

“It’s important for people to know they can go to the police and that hate crimes are properly reported,” she said.

“The bottom line is if there’s hatred toward one group, there could be hatred toward others,” said M.B. Kanis, commander of the Drizin-Weiss Post of the Jewish War Veterans. “All of us working together can stop this, stop the hatred and bigotry.” ••