'An abominable crime': investigation underway into toppled headstones at Jewish cemetery

Philadelphia police from the 15th District investigate the report of vandalism at the Mount Carmel cemetery, where hundreds of Philadelphia's early Jewish residents are buried. Vandals reportedly toppled or damaged as many as 100 gravestones, snapping some of them off at the base.

Millard Braunstein has weathered a lot in his 89 years, but when he walked the grounds of Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery Monday morning and saw his mother's tombstone was among more than 100 that were vandalized overnight Saturday, he could not stop the tears.

"I'm so upset," he said. "This is such a terrible thing."

Braunstein of Cherry Hill, N.J., said he had to come and see the damage for himself, and for his older sister, who is no longer able to travel.

"Yesterday was my sister's 97th birthdays and this was her birthday present," he said, pointing to the toppled headstone.

>>Click here for complete coverage of vandalism at the cemetery

A steady stream of mourners came into the cemetery Monday looking to see if their loved one's tomb was among those desecrated, while volunteers offered assistance and officials thought through the best ways to fix the damage.

Philadelphia Police, meanwhile, were investigating who committed the vandalism and why.

“This is an abominable crime, that appears to target these particular headstones,” the department said in a statement.

Authorities did not release details about potential suspects, saying only the investigation was ongoing.

Richard Levy, administrator for the cemetery, asked people to "absolutely not" try to put the toppled headstones back themselves, for fear of injury. 

The vandalism, coming a week after a similar incident in St. Louis, prompted the Anne Frank Center to call for President Trump to make a forceful denunciation of anti-Semitic hate crimes.

"Mr. President, it's time for you to deliver a prime-time nationally televised speech, live from the Oval Office, on how you intend to combat not only #Antisemitism but also Islamophobia and other rising forms of hate," the organization posted Sunday on Twitter. "Whether or not your intention, your Presidency has given the oxygen of incitement to some of the most viciously hateful elements of our society."

The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 1,372 bias incidents between Trump's inauguration and Feb. 7, the watchdog group reported. Among those, the group highlighted 57 incidents in 24 states of anonymous bomb threats being called in to Jewish Community Centers. The organization has also recorded that the number of hate groups in the U.S. grew in 2016 for the second straight year, with a threefold increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups.

The incident at Mount Carmel prompted support from the national Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

"We are deeply troubled by these rising and ongoing attacks on our Jewish sisters and brothers and members from our Philadelphia chapter are in route to assist in clean up," said Nasim Rehmatullah, the organization's national vice president. 

Mount Carmel Cemetery is one of four graveyards located on each corner at the intersection of Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues. No noticeable vandalism was visible at the other three cemeteries, which all appear to be for Christians.

In a statement Sunday, Mayor Kenney offered condolences to the families affected and said police would find and charge those responsible.

"Hate is not permissible in Philadelphia," he said. "I encourage Philadelphians to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters and to show them that we are the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection."

In a post on Twitter about the incident, the Anti-Defamation League said: "We are appalled to see the desecration of another Jewish cemetery. These attacks need to end now."

The vandalism was similar to that the previous weekend in suburban St. Louis, Mo., where vandals knocked over 154 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery. Vice President Pence, who visited the cemetery, condemned the damage as a "vile act of vandalism" and said "there's no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism."

A Philadelphia man, Tarek El-Messidi, helped to raise more than $100,000 to help repair the vandalism at the Missouri cemetery. El-Messidi visited Mount Carmel Cemetery on Sunday, posting a Facebook video, calling the act "very devastating," and pledging his support.

Mount Carmel Cemetery is receiving additional support as well. The Anti-Defamation League, with support from the Mizel Family Foundation, is offering $10,000 for an arrest and conviction in the case. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 is offering an additional $3,000 to the reward.

Raphael Caroline, 31, started a GoFundMe campaign Sunday to support the cemetery and was stunned to find it was nearly halfway to its goal of raising $10,000 by 8 p.m. Sunday. The Philadelphian started the campaign because of how close knit the Jewish community in Philadelphia is, he said, and planned to give a check to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

"I am just going to give it to them and let them allocate it in the best manner they see fit," he said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is collecting donations for repairs to Mount Carmel Cemetery at www.jewishphilly.org/donate-now-mt-carmel-cemetery.

While authorities have not commented on a motive or suspects in the Philadelphia case, Silver said she believes that whoever committed the act did so because of the current political climate in the country.

"From what I can see, I can't believe a bunch of drunken teenagers did this. It's just so prevalent. It's a lot," she said. "Right away I was thinking of what happened in St. Louis. I truly believe it's anti-Semitism."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon called the crime a "source of worry" on Twitter.

"Philadelphia Jewish cemetery desecration is shocking and a source of worry," Nahshon wrote. "Full confidence US authorities catch and punish culprits."

Watchdog groups for hate crimes have expressed concern about a rise in such incidents 

The vandalism was first noted at 9:33 a.m. Sunday when someone visiting the cemetery called police to report the toppled headstones.

Nobody answered the phone Sunday afternoon at a number listed for the cemetery and messages left there were not returned.

Tombstones at the cemetery date back to at least the mid-1800s. According to the book, "The Jewish Community of South Philadelphia," Mount Carmel cemetery "evolved as a conglomeration of several burial grounds" and was the final resting place of many Austro-Hungarians. Nearly 35 years ago a nearly identical incident took place at the same cemetery. In October 1982 about 100 headstones were knocked over. Beer bottles had been thrown on the grounds and one stone was desecrated with two swastikas and a misspelled "Hile Hitler," according to coverage at the time.

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