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Connecticut Jewish communities speak from experience on how best to safeguard Jewish cemeteries

By Ben Sales/(JTA), with additional reporting from the Connecticut Jewish Ledger

NEW YORK (JTA) – Sometime between the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 17, and the following Monday morning, vandals damaged 170 gravestones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish cemetery outside St. Louis.

Beyond that, cemetery staffers aren’t sure when the attack happened. Groundskeepers leave at 4 p.m. Fridays, and the cemetery is open to the public, unstaffed, all day Sunday. An employee discovered the damaged headstones Monday morning.

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Jewish cemeteries within the Mount Zion Cemetery vandalized in January 2016.

Even less is known about Saturday night’s attack on the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, which saw at least 100 gravestones toppled. Unlike the St. Louis-area cemetery, which is surrounded by a fence and employs groundskeepers, Mount Carmel is run by volunteers, with only a sidewalk separating it from the street.

“There was nothing,” said Steve Rosenberg, chief marketing officer for Philadelphia’s Jewish federation. “It’s wide open. Anyone can walk right in. They can’t find anything that’s closed off to anyone.”

The two attacks, coming one week apart, combined with a series of bomb threats called in to Jewish community centers, have stoked fears of rising antisemitism in the United States and have Jewish leaders fearing that more will follow. Cemeteries, security experts say, are particularly vulnerable because they are big, sparsely staffed and easy to penetrate.

Chesed Shel Emet, with two locations in suburban St. Louis, has more than 20,000 grave plots and a staff of seven, including four groundskeepers. Mount Carmel in Philadelphia is even smaller: It has about 5,000 graves and no paid staff.

Cemeteries “are of relatively large size, and if there is a cemetery staff, recent budget cuts tend to make that staff smaller and smaller,” said Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina group that conserves cemeteries and other historic sites. “There’s hardly any night security at cemeteries anymore.”

“You can do a great deal of mischief in a relatively small amount of time, and the odds of getting caught are slim.”

Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which advises Jewish groups and institutions on security, fears that cemetery attacks could become a trend like the wave of JCC bomb threats, the latest of which came Monday.

Serving in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office two decades ago, Goldenberg investigated a wave of attacks on some 100 Jewish cemeteries over a period of seven years – including his father’s resting place. That spate, he said, was inspired by the neo-Nazi music scene.

“There’s a feeling that the cemeteries may become a place where vandals may become more proactive,” Goldenberg said. “Right now we’re concerned about copycats.”

The Jewish communities of Hartford and New Haven know what it feels like to have their local Jewish cemeteries desecrated by acts of vandalism – and they had advice to share.

In January 2016 Jewish burial areas located in Hartford’s Zion Hill Cemetery, were desecrated with a total of 35 headstones pushed over and broken. A few months later, in June, the Greater Hartford community leaders gathered to rededicate the cemetery, which was repaired through a joint effort of several interfaith and civic organizations. Vigilance and community support don’t ensure that incidents of vandalism won’t happen again, but they go a long way towards helping, says Howard Sovronsky, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.

“We are fortunate to have a dedicated full-time staff person to oversee the cemeteries and who visits the cemeteries at least once a week to make sure all is well,” Sovronsky told the Ledger, referring to Lisa Vaeth, director of the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford, an arm of the Federation that is responsible for the maintenance and management of 28 Jewish cemeteries associated with several of Hartford’s now-defunct synagogues and Jewish organizations. Sovronsky also cites the support of Hartford’s Association of Jewish Cemeteries and its chair, Henry Zachs.

“We still don’t know who perpetrated the vandalism we experienced, but the community came together – both the Jewish and secular communities – to offer support and helped raise funds for restitution of the headstones. We here in Hartford are also working closely with the police department who have been extremely supportive and who are about to put in security upgrades to better protect Jewish cemeteries in the north end. So, we are watching this cautiously and hopefully this will not be an ongoing concern of ours,” he adds, noting that Hartford has not seen any additional vandalism in our cemeteries.

Like Hartford, New Haven’s Jewish community experienced incidents of vandalism a few years ago in its East Haven cemeteries. As a result, the community made several changes and adjustments, says Andrew Hodes, administrative director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven.

“We instituted United Illuminating’s “Light the Night,” floodlights that you can direct onto certain areas and control from dusk to dawn,” he told the Ledger. “Many companies use it in their parking lots overnight for added security. It is not an outrageous amount of money. UI comes out, surveys, and makes recommendations. When we split the cost over a few cemeteries, it is relatively inexpensive for any one cemetery for the year. We’ve looked into the program for some of our other cemeteries, to increase security, but it was cost-prohibitive. We’ve also looked into motion-sensitive security cameras and that also is cost-prohibitive.”

For communities who experience problems in their cemeteries, Hodes counsels keeping a low profile.

“Whether there was a car accident that knocked over fencing or some random vandalism, we try to keep it under the radar because we don’t want to give anyone ideas,” he says.

Like Sovronsky, Hodes believes close relationship and communication with other community agencies is key to protecting the cemeteries.

“From time to time, we’ve been in touch with the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, Judy Diamondstein, and with ADL. We’ve asked the local police departments to increase their patrols wherever and whenever they can. In one particular area, there’s a large enough driveway where the police can pull in and stay for a while. The fact that the car is visible helps to act as a deterrent.

“In short, we’ve asked the police to be more vigilant, we’ve tried to increase night-lighting where we can, and we hope for the best. We make the rounds ourselves and our maintenance crews are aware of and cognizant of anything that looks untoward.”

In fact, Hodes himself plans to make the rounds of all our cemeteries over the next few days.

Community is on the mind of Trinkley and Goldenberg, as well. The most effective way to prevent cemetery vandalism, they agree, is through volunteer patrols that keep the cemetery manned at night, as well as surveillance. Chesed Shel Emeth has security cameras, while Mount Carmel does not.

Goldenberg added that community members need to contact law enforcement when they see a threat, and should let police examine damaged stones before repairing a vandalized cemetery.

“People want to do the right thing and clean up and put stones up,” Goldenberg said. “They need to reconsider that until the police show up for investigation.”

While Goldenberg floated the prospect of paid security, Trinkley said many cemetery budgets probably cannot support that. Even repairing damaged stones can get pricey. Trinkley estimated that setting a toppled headstone aright could cost $500, while buying a new one can run to $4,000.

Financial help has streamed in to assist Chesed Shel Emeth, including more than $100,000 raised by Muslim activists. Online fundraising drives for Mount Carmel are ongoing as well. Volunteers including Vice President Mike Pence pitched in to clean up the damage in Missouri, and a similar effort is being organized in Philadelphia.

At Chesed Shel Emeth, director Anita Feigenbaum has begun a security assessment on how to make the site less vulnerable to attacks. But though the vandalism happened during a weekend, she said closing the cemetery gates on Sundays in the name of safety might be a step too far.

“A lot of people can’t make it during the week,” she said.

Of course, the recent acts of cemetery vandalism notwithstanding, America’s Jewish communities have other pressing concerns at the moment.

“We are more concerned right now about the bomb threats targeting our JCC [and day schools] and the incredible disruption that this is causing; it is a traumatic experience that is being perpetrated against our community and we are taking every one of these threats seriously and working closely with our community,” says Sovronsky. “We have pulled together a security council and I’m meeting with the day schools later this week to be sure we are in the most secured position possible, even though you can’t always predict what will happen, we want to do all we can.”

CAP: A visitor to the vandalized Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia views some of the toppled tombstones, Feb. 26, 2017. (Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

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