By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – Police and local Jewish community leaders are responding to a recent wave of vandalism in several Jewish sections of the Tower Avenue and Zion Hill cemeteries.
It was West Hartford resident Moshe Elkayam who first reported vandalism at the grave of his son, a U.S. Army reservist killed in action in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Congregation Ados Israel is one of many cemeteries in the Tower Avenue section of Hartford. The plots belonging to still-active synagogues and Jewish organizations are maintained by their respective proprietors; the plots of now- defunct or disbanded Jewish organizations are under the care and maintenance of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Association of Jewish Cemeteries. The same arrangement exists at the Zion Hill area of Hartford.
“The community around the Tower Avenue cemetery has always shown respect for the cemetery, in the sense that nothing was ever damaged,” says Lisa Vaeth, director of the association.
Just six months ago, 40 monuments were knocked over in the Zion Hill cemetery, according to Henry Zachs, vice chair of the Federation Association of Jewish Cemeteries. Additional damage occurred at Zion Hill two weeks ago. The Tower Avenue vandalism cut a swath from west to east, damaging 53 monuments in all, says Vaeth, in addition to the nine stones toppled at Zion Hill. Two other Jewish cemeteries in the Tower Avenue area, not under the care of the association, also sustained damage.
Vaeth says that the major crimes unit of the Hartford Police Department is investigating the incident, and is patrolling the area during all shifts.
The Anti-Defamation League is working directly with the Hartford Police Department on the investigation, which is being treated as a hate crime, according to ADL Connecticut regional director Gary Jones.
“While the police have not determined that this is a hate crime, when they view an incident like this, they investigate it with that perspective,” Jones says. “What’s very troubling is that there was a pretty intense effort by a number of people to go into different areas and do a lot of destruction, including overturning the tallest monument,” Jones says. “It is also disconcerting that, while Zion Hill has experienced ongoing vandalism, this is the first time the Tower Avenue cemetery has been targeted.”
Zachs says that, over the years, vandals have done serious damage to the Congregation Agudas Achim and Dreyfus Lodge plots at Zion Hill, but the most recent destruction
occurred throughout the cemetery, including some Christian gravesites.
Both Zachs and Jones say that no graffiti has been discovered, though many headstones have not yet been righted. The Hartford Police department is now watching the Zion Hill cemetery, and the Trinity College Campus Safety Department has volunteered to do so as well, Zachs says.
Ten years ago, the association spent $250,000 to add fencing to Zion Hill cemetery, funds provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Jewish Community
Foundation of Greater Hartford, and the Zachs Family Foundation. Plans were underway to raise money to fence three additional areas of Zion Hill.
Jewish cemetery leaders will discuss how to address security issues, Vaeth says. A monitoring system is being considered, in addition to higher fencing. The Tower Avenue cemetery fence is only four feet high; locking the gates permanently may not make a difference, Vaeth says.
“The police department is taking this very seriously,” says Jones. “But this is a difficult investigation, as there are no explicit clues left in terms of who did it and how it happened.”
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