For vandalized cemetery, a long history of decline

For the battered Mount Carmel Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia, a recent spate of vandalism was only the latest insult in a long decline.

With few new burials to generate income, a dwindling endowment, no map to its 8,000 plots, a deteriorated burial ledger, and an overseer who puts in only 15 hours a week, the Jewish cemetery founded nearly two centuries ago is not quite an “orphan” but it has long been down on its luck

Philadelphia police on Wednesday were still seeking the vandals behind the ugly incident reported Sunday in which about a hundred gravestones were broken and toppled.  In a sign of the national attention provoked by the crime, President Trump, in his speech to Congress on Tuesday night, condemned the recent “vandalism of Jewish cemeteries” and threats to Jewish community centers across the nation.

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At the five-acre Mount Carmel cemetery in the city’s Wissinoming section, people in the cemetery business and others say there has long been a low-grade desecration as teens party there, leaving behind beer bottles and other trash.

And over the years, vandals have periodically wreaked worse damage. In 1989, they knocked over 87 headstones, broke obelisks in half, and defaced with rocks other stone markers. A newspaper story at the time pointed out that the culprits spared one of the more notable tombstones — that of the man believed to be the longest-lived member of the crew of the Civil War's USS Monitor.

In 1982, illiterate vandals also knocked down scores of headstones. On one stone, they scrawled two swastikas and "Hile Hitler."  Hooligans also toppled headstones in 1959.

With the earliest burial in its ledger dating to 1832, Mount Carmel  was primarily a burial place for Jewish immigrants from Russia. According to a 1900-01 edition of the American Jewish Year Book, it held dedicated land for two long-closed Philadelphia synagogues -- Chebra Thillim, founded in 1887, and Congregation Emunath Israel Ohew Solem, founded in 1881.

Naomi Adler, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which has stepped in to help loved ones learn whether their relatives’ graves were desecrated, said Mount  Carmel is not affiliated with any specific synagogue.

Harry Boonin, who in 1979 founded the Jewish Genealogy Society of Philadelphia, and who has periodically visited Mount Carmel for research, said the surrounding neighborhood was a thriving Jewish community in the early 1900s, but that had long faded out, leaving the cemetery less in demand.  “When there are fewer burials, less money comes in,” he said.

Some have suggested that the vandalism reflected unfocused malice rather than anti-Semitism. Boonin said he understood vandalism to be a routine problem at Mount Carmel, especially the toppling of headstones. “It almost seemed like a neighborhood tradition,” Boonin said.

For decades, the cemetery has been owned by Scotts Mount Carmel Cemetery Inc., a business of the family that operated Scott’s Florist Shop on Frankford Avenue, across from the graveyard.  The flower shop had an ideal location of sorts, as it was in the middle of three cemeteries that converge at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues.

The flower shop closed about a decade ago.  Calls to the Scott family were not returned Wednesday.

In recent years, the cemetery has been overseen by a nonprofit organization  headed by Richard Levy that was founded in 2007.  Levy, who has not returned reporters’ calls in recent days, reported on the organization’s most recent public disclosure that he was the nonprofit’s only employee and that he worked 15 hours a week, down from 20 hours weekly in earlier years.

Levy owns another nearby cemetery, the for-profit Har Nebo, an 18-acre cemetery a mile north at Somerdale and Oxford Avenues, according to city records.     

In recent years, the nonprofit has reported spending about $28,000 a year on the cemetery. Spending surged in 2012, when the group spent $138,000. 

Its public tax forms also show that its assets fell from nearly $700,000 in 2011 to $486,000 in 2014, the last year for which a disclosure was available.

Many Jewish cemeteries in the Northeast like Mount Carmel are increasingly at risk, according to Amy Koplow of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America.

“They’re fragile and the funding to maintain them is often very weak,” she said.

Once a cemetery stops adding graves and selling care, it largely stops collecting money. In some cities, such as New York and Cincinnati, groups  have set up umbrella organizations that pool resources to care for troubled graveyards, she noted.

Mount Carmel had no cameras to watch over its tightly packed graves.

“Cameras are good, but you have to have a source of electricity and you have to have somebody doing surveillance,” Koplow said. “There are many, many small Jewish cemeteries in the Northeast that really don’t have the resources or even somebody in charge to be doing surveillance all the time."

As for Levy, interviewed at the cemetery on Monday, he said he was upset at the damage and at the task ahead to make things right.

Of the vandalism, he said, “It’s really unnecessary and I don’t understand the psychology behind it.”

Staff writers Stephanie Farr, Craig R. McCoy, and Nancy Phillips contributed to this article.