Community coming together after cemetery vandalism, JCC threats

- Religious leaders are calling the weekend vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming disgusting and completely deplorable.

Meanwhile, the community is coming together. Volunteers plan a massive clean-up at the cemetery dating to the late 1800s. If you’ve available to help, it’s set for noon at Frankford and Cheltenham avenues and is expected to take place each afternoon..

Thursday, there will be a community-wide gathering of support, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. It’s set for noon at Independence Mall and called “Stand Against Hate.” Thousands of people from multiple faith communities and the full diversity of Philadelphia are expected.

These events come as Jewish centers and schools here and across the nation coped with another wave of bomb threats.

According to the JCC Association of North America, 13 Jewish Community Centers and eight Jewish day schools in at least a dozen states -- including our three -- received threats on Monday.

The Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood and the Siegel JCC in Wilmington were targeted. In New Jersey, someone called in a threat at the Katz JCC.

Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn put it simply, “We're not gonna stand for it.”

Police performed sweeps after the threats and found nothing. They’re asking people to call if they see or hear anything unusual.

The bomb threats caused no physical damage but were no less worrisome.

"There's plenty of people who are scared," said Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He denounced the hoaxsters as "an embarrassment to civilized society."

Just to our west, some 200 people were evacuated from the JCC in York, Pennsylvania, after a caller told the front desk there was a bomb in the building, said Melissa Plotkin, its director of community engagement and diversity. Police entered the building and cleared it, she said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who has long ties to the York center and even served on its board, called the bomb threats and cemetery vandalism reprehensible.

"These acts are cowardly and disturbing," Wolf told reporters in a conference call Monday. "We must find those responsible and hold them accountable for these hate crimes."

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro released this statement: "Pennsylvania was struck today by multiple anonymous acts of hate. Within minutes my Office reached local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials to offer the full support of the Attorney General's office and to assist in a thorough investigation. These acts are cowardly. Their perpetrators aim to spread fear, but we will stand together to ensure they fail. Intimidation and threats against the people of any one faith are an affront to us all."

Since January, the JCC Association has tracked 90 incidents in 30 states and Canada.

Also, Philadelphia officials have plans to repair and restore hundreds of vandalized headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Police are investigating what they called an "abominable crime" after several hundred headstones were damaged. They said the vandalism appeared to be targeted at the Jewish community, but cautioned they hadn’t confirmed the motive.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said authorities were doing everything possible to find those "who desecrated this final resting place."

Police have not yet determined who was behind the vandalism or the motive. The Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and the Fraternal Order of Police is offering $3,000.

The Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group for more than 50 union locals that work in the construction industry, offered to repair the damage at Mount Carmel free of charge.

The group’s John Dougherty put out this statement: “The desecration of nearly 100 headstones at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia was a cowardly act of anti-Semitism that cannot be tolerated. Out of respect to the families who were impacted by this atrocity, the Philadelphia Building Trades today offered to replace the toppled tombstones, re-sod damaged gravesites and clean the cemetery at no charge to anyone. In addition, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 98, for which I also serve as Business Manager, has offered to install additional lighting and security cameras at no charge to hopefully prevent such vandalism from ever happening again.”

The National Museum of American Jewish History at 5th and Market streets wants to preserve the stories of the people buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery. The museum is asking those who have friends or loved ones interred there to share a picture of their loved one (and/or the headstone, if available), and a personal story of up to 150 words.

“We would like those who did this to understand that these are not victimless crimes. The individuals buried at Mount Carmel were human beings with names, stories, and families. They contributed to the world while they were here and continue to do so through the loved ones they left behind. We honor their memories,” said Ivy Barsky, from the museum.

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The vandalism comes less than a week after a Jewish cemetery in suburban St. Louis was targeted. More than 150 headstones there were damaged, many of them tipped over.

Both acts of vandalism spurred offers of help. In Missouri, a Muslim crowdfunding effort to support the vandalized Jewish cemetery near St. Louis had raised more than $136,000 by Monday, with organizers announcing they would use some of the money for the Philadelphia cemetery.

It was the fifth round of bomb threats against Jewish institutions since January, and both the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are probing the threats.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the vandalism and bomb threats serious, unacceptable behavior and said the department will "do what it can to assist in pushing back ... and prosecuting anybody that we can prove to be a part of it."

"We are a nation that is a diverse constituency, and we don't need these kind of activities," Sessions said.

Statement from Bishop Dennis Sullivan, Bishop of Camden:

“This weekend and today, we have seen vandalism against our Jewish sisters and brothers in Pennsylvania and threats in Delaware and in our very own backyard at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  This abhorrent behavior, which has no place in contemporary culture, stands in opposition to everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches.

“As Catholics, we too are spiritual descendants of Abraham. We recognize that an attack or threat against our Jewish family members is an attack against all peoples of faith. 

“The Diocese of Camden, my brother priests, deacons, religious, and the lay Catholic faithful of South Jersey stand in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers against these hateful and anti-Semitic incidents.

“We pray that the perpetrators of these incidents will come to know God’s love, bringing them to the light of peace where they may recant these acts of hate and join with all people of good will in forging a community of compassion.”

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