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Jewish community responds to arrests of cemetery vandals

By Cindy Mindell

HARTFORD – On Monday, the Hartford Police Department announced the arrests of three teenagers suspected of knocking over or destroying more than 90 monuments in the Tower Avenue Jewish cemetery area last month. The vandalism was the first such incident in the North End of the city, in a neighborhood that has traditionally enjoyed good relations with the organized Jewish community. The perpetrators were identified as residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
“This has been really painful for the families and costly for the Jewish community, but the amazing thing is that they caught these kids,” says Laura Zimmerman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). “The good news is that it wasn’t a hate crime, but just kids walking through the cemetery to the park with nothing to do.”
Police were originally treating the vandalism as a possible hate crime, investigating with the cooperation of the Connecticut Regional office of the Anti-Defamation League.
“We would like to commend the Hartford Police Department for the seriousness with which it investigated the cemetery vandalism,” says ADL Regional Director Gary Jones. “The department understands the pain that this kind of vandalism inflicts on the community and the department’s dedicated efforts to identify and arrest the perpetrators fully reflected that understanding. We are also greatly appreciative that the department, through Chief James Rovella and lead investigator Lt. Brian Foley, made sure that ADL and others were informed of the status of the investigation on a regular basis.”
In a statement released by the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford, Director Lisa K. Vaeth thanked the Hartford Police Department, who “don’t get thanked enough,” she says.
“We cannot adequately express our appreciation and admiration,” the statement read. “They worked around the clock to locate the individuals who are responsible for this unspeakable crime. We owe a mountain of gratitude to Commander of the Major Crimes Unit Lt. Brian Foley, Captain James Bernier, Officer Theresa Velez and the entire Hartford Police Department.”
Vaeth called the arrests “bittersweet” for the Jewish community, especially for those families whose gravesites were damaged. “We will now have to consider investing in security measures that we cannot readily afford.”
Those next steps were discussed at a recent meeting between Vaeth, Laura Zimmerman; and Congregation Ados Israel President Leonard Holtz. The three consulted with a JCRC board member who works in the security field.
“Our innocence has been lost and we need to recognize that security must be part of cemetery maintenance,” Holtz says. “For the first time in the history of the Tower Avenue Jewish cemetery area, we have locked the Ados Israel gates, and only those with a
legitimate reason to be in the cemetery will be allowed access.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford will convene the owners of the Jewish cemeteries in the Tower Avenue area – among them, the Federation, Holtz, and several Greater Hartford synagogues – to discuss options and possible funding sources, Zimmerman says. The group will also explore ways to improve security at the Zion Hill Jewish cemetery area near Trinity College.
Zimmerman believes that phased-in measures would be most beneficial, beginning with signage, then adding lighting and perhaps a camera.
Holtz and Zimmerman join Vaeth in commending the work of the Hartford police, who have maintained regular police patrols in the Tower Avenue area and developed positive relationships within the local community.
“The police have taken this incident personally,” Holtz says. “It was not only a challenge to pursue the perpetrators, but they are also helping to coordinate efforts among vendors to help pay for repairs.” Holtz says that members of the local community have contacted him to express their concern and support. Neighbors and area merchants have offered to help in the cleanup. “It’s been an outpouring and show of everything good,” he says.
“I have a lot of people in the neighborhood who call us when they see something wrong,” Vaeth says. “Even though Henry Zachs [vice chair of the Federation Association of Jewish Cemeteries] and I are on site weekly, we don’t see everything. We would like to reach out to the neighbors to help be our watchdogs and call us or the police.”
Vaeth and Holtz say that they would like to see the perpetrators help in the cleanup and recovery, estimated to cost $20,000. The teens are each charged with interfering with a cemetery or burial ground and criminal mischief – neither charge is a serious criminal offense – and have been summoned to appear in juvenile court.
“I hope the perpetrators will realize that their actions were so harmful and costly,” Holtz says. “Maybe there’s a way for them to
be part of a regular cleanup of the cemeteries.”
“I think their having to do community service is fine and may make an impact on them,” says Vaeth. “They may have a little more pride in the neighborhood they live in and not want to see it ruined by others.”
The ADL’s Jones goes further in his suggestion for a constructive response to the crime. “We understand that the Hartford Police Department has determined that the juveniles under arrest had no antisemitic motives in committing the vandalism,” he says. “We would hope that their sentencing would include an effort to educate the juveniles about the people and religion who were victimized by their
actions.”

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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