Thousands of people of many faiths and backgrounds filled Independence Mall on Thursday in a “Stand Against Hate,” to protest the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, and a spate of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and day schools.
About 100 headstones were discovered toppled at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming on Sunday. It was the second reported act of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in weeks. Headstones at a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis were discovered damaged on Feb. 20.
As the demonstration began at noon in front of Independence Hall, there were reports of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Rochester, N.Y.
The rally was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which estimated that as many as 5,000 people filled the expanse on Independence Mall.
In the crowd was the Rev. Donna Maree, an Episcopal priest who is rector of Trinity Memorial Church in Center City.
Maree said she had just come back from a visit to Israel with a group of Christians and Jews on Feb. 23, just days before the news of the toppled headstones at Mount Carmel in Northeast Philadelphia made headlines and news coverage worldwide.
"We talked to Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, Ethiopian Jews," said Maree, who made the trip with the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is part of the Jewish Federation.
"People want peace," Maree said. She said she has had contact with Jewish people in Israel about the spate of hate incidents targeting cemeteries, schools and community centers.
"It's disappointing to Jews in Israel that people here have turned to hate."
The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, was also at the rally. He said he was saddened by the recent incidents and that it was important to speak out.
"I am reminded of the quote by Martin Niemoller," Tyler said, a reference to the Protestant pastor who spoke out against Adolf Hitler by noting persecution of one group after another, when nothing was said. It ends: "Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."
“I am incredibly heartened by the outpouring of so many generations of people who are taking their time to come out in the cold to stand against hate,” said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation.
She urged those in the crowd -- blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics; Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists — to take the spirit of the rally back to their homes and communities. “Share your stories of what justice, love, and mercy are,” Adler said.
Among the speakers was Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who got loud applause when he said he had just spent time in Washington telling President Trump that vandalism and bomb threats were hate crimes and needed to be treated as such.
“To my fellow Jews,” Shapiro said, “today it is us, tomorrow it will be LGBTQ people, and another day it will be our African American brothers and sisters or our Latino brothers and sisters.
“But no matter who is being targeted, we are all less safe.”
Max Buchdahl, 21, a junior at Temple University and president of Hillel at Temple, said he was encouraged by the gathering of so many people at the place where American democracy was born.
“It’s great to see this many people here, and it’s incredible that it’s across faiths and across racial groups,” Buchdahl said. He added that he and other Temple students, Jewish and non-Jewish, went to Mount Carmel, at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues, to help with restoration efforts.
Also in the crowd was Amnah Ahmad, 29, associate director of the Arab American Development Corp. at Al-Aqsa Mosque in North Philadelphia. She carried a sign that read, “Islam = Peace.”
“We came to show love and peace to the Jewish community,” Ahmad said.
As she talked to reporters, Barry Ungar, 73, of Haverford, who is Jewish, walked up to her and said, "Any attacks against you are attacks against us."
He continued: "I never thought I would see in my lifetime this kind of danger and fear."
Also at the rally were two other Jewish groups, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Spokespersons for both said that while they condemned the vandalism against Jewish cemeteries, they also condemned hate crimes against Muslims, African Americans and others.
"We stand here as Jews with our fellow Jews," said Ezra Nepon, a spokesman for Jewish Voice for Peace. "We're so glad that they have condemned all kinds of oppression."