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Hartford Police cite hate crime in recent cemetery desecration

By Cindy Mindell

cemetery toppled gravestones at zion hill

Twenty monuments were tipped over at the Dreyfus Lodge Cemetery.

HARTFORD – Hartford police are treating the most recent vandalism at Zion Hill Cemetery Jewish burial areas a hate crime.

The Dreyfus Lodge and Congregation Adas Israel burial areas were desecrated last week, with a total of 35 headstones pushed over and broken.

The Dreyfus Lodge damage was discovered on Jan. 27 by Lisa Vaeth, director of the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford. The arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford is responsible for the maintenance and management of 28 Jewish cemeteries associated with now-defunct synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Vaeth reported to the Hartford Police Department, which assigned the investigation to Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley, who has worked on similar incidents since 2000.

The Zion Hill Cemetery also includes Jewish plots belonging to Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, and the now-defunct Hartford City Lodge.

“If the Association of Jewish Cemeteries did not step in, these final resting spaces would have continued to decline,” says Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation. “Caring for the dead is the highest act of tzedakah, and Federation is proud to make these cemeteries a community priority.”

The following day, Vaeth met Hartford Courant staff at the cemetery to discuss the vandalism, together with Leonard Holtz, president of Adas Israel cemetery and executive funeral director of West Hartford-based Hebrew Funeral Association, Inc. While the camera crew was filming the Dreyfus Lodge damage, Holtz went to check on the Adas Israel plot, where he was stunned to find some 15 gravestones toppled and other monuments whose decorative elements had been broken off.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Holtz says. “What was confusing was that, after 40 monuments were knocked over in an incident of vandalism two-and-a-half years ago, the Adas Israel gates have been locked with a very heavy-duty chain. When I got to the cemetery gate, the lock and the chain weren’t even there, and the gate was open. So I thought maybe someone came and visited and forgot to lock and someone stole the chain. The ramification of what might have happened didn’t immediately sink in; but when I started walking, I began to see toppled monuments.”

According to Holtz, the heavy chain and lock have been cut two times in the past, indicating direct targeting of the Jewish burial areas. In December, a six-foot-long piece of vintage wrought-iron fence was cut open with a bolt cutter.

Holtz returned to the cemetery on Friday, Jan. 29 with a FOX 61 camera crew, only to discover that decorative tops of several headstones broken off, including the granite top on his grandfather’s monument. In addition, he discovered that the monument of his great-grandmother, Rosa Holtz z”l, was among those knocked over.

Holtz praises the City of Hartford, which took action that day to remove tree limbs and brush that might create hiding places for vandals.

Deputy Chief Foley is certain that the vandalism is a hate crime.

“There’s too much of a pattern in the Jewish areas of the cemetery as opposed to the rest of our cemeteries in the rest of the city,” he says. “We get one or two gravestones knocked over in the Christian cemeteries here and there – four or five, once in a while – but when you get 20, 30 gravestones knocked over year after year after year, in a row, in a specific section of the cemetery, for me, it’s impossible not to look at it as a pattern.”

Foley says that his department is working with neighborhood partners and the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford on creative ways to catch the perpetrators.

For Vaeth, while the motivation behind the vandalism is still unclear, the Jewish Federation has full confidence in the Hartford Police Department’s ongoing investigations and additional patrol activity. Vaeth has made a full inventory of the Dreyfus Lodge damage and is fielding inquiries from all over the country regarding particular headstones.

“It is important to recognize that this disgraceful incident is far more serious than simple property damage,” she says. “This is both complete desecration and disrespect to those buried in this sacred ground, and to their families who continue to mourn their loss.”

Holtz says that the question of how to preserve Greater Hartford’s Jewish burial areas has taken on a new definition in the wake of regular desecration.

“You think about erosion over time or the effects of natural elements on the monuments, but you don’t think the cemetery will be compromised or destroyed by vandals,” he says. “But with multiple incidents targeting the same cemeteries, we have to do something significantly different to preserve these cemeteries.”

Holtz plans to repair the Adas Israel damage, both the vandalized monuments and those showing signs of instability. The area will now be kept locked, and Holtz is looking into the possibility of mounting security cameras.

Sovronsky hopes to see the community galvanize around the destructive acts. “This [kind of incident] degrades everybody and I would hope that the entire community expresses their outrage with this kind of behavior,” says Sovronsky. “While it was a Jewish cemetery that was targeted, it does reflect on all of us.”

The Association of Jewish Cemeteries plans to repair and re-erect the vandalized Dreyfus Lodge headstones as soon as the weather allows. The Hartford Police Italian Officers Association has pledged $500 to help with expenses.

To make a donation to defray renovation costs: Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, 333 Bloomfield Ave., Suite C, West Hartford, CT 06117

CAP: Leonard Holtz examines his grandfather’s vandalized headstone.

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