Saturday, March 4, 2017

Jewish Cemetery Vandalized in Philadelphia

This has been a busy week for the small (Jewish) Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. You’ve no doubt heard of the desecration - it became national news: 75 to 100 headstones were knocked over sometime Saturday evening, February 25, 2017. This follows on the heels of similar vandalism in Missouri, from February 20, when over 100 headstones were toppled in the Jewish Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in University City, Missouri (see story at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO2QXjwYtg0).

Philadelphia Daily News
To fuel the fear of a “hate wave” spreading across America, about thirty bomb threats were made at the end of February to Jewish schools and community centers in eighteen states (see link). As of this writing, the case has been solved and seems to have been the work of one person, not related to the incident at Mount Carmel Cemetery.
A portion of the damage in Philadelphia's Mount Carmel Cemetery

Bad stuff, any way you look at it. However, I’m not going to jump on the hate crime bandwagon just yet, even though the FBI is investigating the vandalism. Why? Well, for one thing, thirty-three headstones were toppled last month in the Holy Redeemer Catholic Cemetery in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia (see link), less than two miles from Mount Carmel. So it may not be antisemitism, just cowardly aggression toward those who cannot defend themselves – the dead. In both Philadelphia situations, communities have come together to repair the damage.

Volunteer registration at Mt. Carmel coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

I’m still (perhaps naively) thinking it was a small group of drunken kids with beer muscles, at least in Philadelphia. Should the people responsible be caught and punished? Damned right. A $69,000 reward (it increases each day, see link) is being offered through a variety of sources for the apprehension of those responsible. 

Headstone fallen and broken in half
Looking at the situation from a vandal’s perspective, Mount Carmel was, unfortunately, an easy target. And that may simply be the main reason it WAS targeted. If you wanted to topple headstones, Mount Carmel would be a better choice than any of the cemeteries on the other three sides at this intersection (Cedar Hill and North Cedar Hill) of East Cheltenham Avenue and Frankford Avenue in north Philadelphia. At Mount Carmel, you are hidden from the road by the densely-packed headstones, making it easy to do your dirty work without being seen.

Mount Carmel Cemetery also has no road inside it so neither police, nor any other cars, can drive through it. Besides, the gates are left open at night, unlike the other, better cared for and more secure cemeteries. The rear gate opens up onto a parking lot and there is quite a bit of tree cover. These many drawbacks will be remedied, however, through the generosity of many donors - significant improvements will be made to the cemetery going forward. 

Wide open rear gate at Philadelphia's Mount Carmel Cemetery

Throughout this past week, hundreds of people have volunteered their time to help repair the damage done at Mount Carmel Cemetery. 

On March 1, 2017, I visited and spoke with members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who were organizing the volunteer effort. A registration table was set up at the cemetery’s entrance, bottled water and bags for trash, branches, and weed clippings were provided. Dozens of volunteers (all races and religions) spent the day cleaning up debris, raking leaves and dead branches, and marking and cataloging the damaged grave stones. The Federation has been receiving calls from individuals asking if their ancestors’ headstones had been knocked over. They took it upon themselves to gather this information. Someone had placed cut flowers on all the damaged headstones and monuments. People are upset, but have joined together to correct the situation.

Philadelphia Inquirer, www.philly.com

I’ve seen damage in cemeteries, but I was not prepared for this. You can't really grasp the magnitude of the damage through on-the-ground newspaper photos. A hundred headstones does not seem like a lot, but Mount Carmel is not a large property. This may amount to a tenth of all the stones in the cemetery. The swath taken by the vandals is obvious, as you walk the length of the property. Stones are toppled throughout the center portion of the rectangular cemetery (east to west). The aerial photographs published by the newspapers give the best depiction of the extent of the damage. Seeing this atrocity in person is jaw-dropping – cracked stones, large monuments pushed off their pedestals, grave markers of all shapes and sizes knocked over.

From the Philadelphia Police Department
Anyone with information on the suspect(s) involved in this crime, please contact either:

·         Northeast Detective Division – 215-686-3153/3154
·         Philadelphia Police Tip Line – 215-686-TIPS (8477)
·         Tips via email – tips@phillypolice.com
·         Citizens Crime Commission – 215-546-TIPS (8477)

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Donation page for Mount Carmel Cemetery:


Preventing Future Damage
There is a clear message being sent to the criminals responsible for the Mount Carmel damage – the greater community will repair the damage and will prevent such damage in the future. Police will patrol the property 24x7 until the criminals are caught. Fencing will be improved.

“… the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council offered to replace the toppled headstones and … the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 98 offered to install additional lighting and security cameras." -  http://www.jta.org/2017/02/28/news-opinion/united-states/philadelphia-labor-unions-offer-to-repair-secure-vandalized-jewish-cemetery

Mount Carmel is apparently an active cemetery, as I was told of a relatively recent burial here, 2015. There is a bit of pre-existing damage (a few fallen headstones), a bit of overgrowth, and some areas where the ground has subsided, causing a handful of grave markers to tilt. Clearly, work needs to be done here, especially if families have paid for “perpetual care.”
Volunteers bagging debris at Mount Carmel Cemetery

The lopsided headstones made me realize that before members of local labor unions are allowed to reset the fallen headstones, someone needs to consult a professional about a safe and secure way of doing that. Even if the stone base of the headstone is level, the headstone should be pinned to its base with steel or fiberglass rebar to prevent future damage. Believe it or not, many extremely heavy granite headstones simply sit on their bases! They are not fastened in any way, which is why people are injured or killed when headstones fall on them! If the base is not level, it needs to be leveled first, as shown in this video:


Pinning a headstone to its base is not an unusual practice, but it does cost more money, which is probably part of the reason it is not always done. Two holes are drilled in the base and the underside of the headstone, ... rebar is used to attach the stone to the base, then the joint is sealed to keep water from seeping into the joint between the stones.

“Blind Pinning is exactly what it implies, pins you do not see once the stone is installed. The concept is very simple. Holes are drilled in both the [headstone] and base at exactly the same locations so they match up when joined. Then metal [or other material] pins are placed in the holes, and usually mortared in place. The basic thinking was that if the monument was knocked or began to lean the pins would prevent a complete failure, and the damage this may cause.”International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association, “HOW TO INSTALL A GRAVESTONE”


References and further reading:

Mount Carmel Cemetery 5722 Frankford Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19135. Phone: 215-535-1530. Fax: 215-535-5192 

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