Muslims, led by Philly man, raise more than $100K for vandalized Jewish cemetery

When Tarek El-Messidi saw reports of a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis vandalized  over the weekend — more than 150 headstones toppled in Chesed Shel Emeth, one of the region's oldest Jewish graveyards — he thought of his own family. And then he thought of the Prophet Muhammad.

“It really broke my heart to see those vandalized graves,” he said. “I thought, what if this was one of my own relatives, grandparents, great-grandparents? It was horrific.”

El-Messidi, 36, is the founding director of Celebrate Mercy, a nonprofit that produces webcasts and videos on the life of Muhammad. He recalled a story in which the prophet, sitting with his disciples, saw a Jewish funeral pass by, and stood in respect. “His disciples said, ‘This is not a Muslim funeral — why are you standing?’ ” El-Messidi said. “And Muhammad replied, ‘Is it not a human soul?’ It’s a basic human right for everyone to rest in peace.”

From his home in Philadelphia, El-Messidi scoured social media for information about the desecration. The progressive Muslim activist Linda Sarsour — one of the leaders of the Women’s March on Washington last month — was already posting about what Muslims could do to help.

El-Messidi reached out to Sarsour. By Tuesday, the two had launched an online campaign, called Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery. The goal was $20,000. They hit that within three hours.

Within 24 hours, they had raised $80,000 — or $1,000 in donations every 20 minutes. By Thursday morning, with celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres tweeting links to the donation page, they had raised nearly $114,000. El-Messidi said he was working with the cemetery’s owners to assess how much is needed to repair the graves.

"Whatever remaining funds we have above the target, we’re going to use to address any other vandalism that takes place at a Jewish cemetery or institution or synagogue — either a current instance of vandalism or future ones," he said. "We’ll be ready to respond." 

He said the response to the campaign had been overwhelming, with messages pouring in from across the country.

El-Messidi founded Celebrate Mercy in Ohio in 2010. He’s been living in Philadelphia for the last eight months; his wife is working toward her Ph.D. at Drexel University. The nonprofit has run successful crowdfunding before, raising hundreds of thousands for the victims of the San Bernardino shootings in 2015, but never before has he had a campaign raise so much money so quickly, El-Messidi said.

People with family buried in the cemetery said they were heartened by the fund-raising efforts.

Barbara Perl, a former hospice social worker from the Los Angeles area, said her grandparents and great-grandfather were buried in Chesed Shel Emeth. Her great-grandmother was killed in anti-Semitic attacks in Russia; her great-grandfather fled to America and settled in St. Louis in the early 1900s.

“We still don’t know whether my family’s graves were destroyed, and in some ways it doesn’t matter — if it happened to [any gravestone], it happened to me,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone would take out their anger on deceased people. Our family is really wounded.”

Seeing Muslims fund-raising online, she said, helped “heal that pain.” She and El-Messidi have been emailing back and forth for the last few days.

“I am so grateful to him,” she said. “Just to know that they cared, and wanted to help repair.”

El-Messidi said rhetoric during the campaign season and after President Trump’s controversial order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, blocked by a federal judge, put his community on edge. Jewish Americans feel similarly, Perl said, after a series of anti-Semitic incidents after the election, including recent bomb threats at Jewish community centers around the country. (Trump addressed the incidents for the first time on Tuesday; Vice President Pence visited the cemetery Wednesday.)

“Both communities feel targeted right now, worried about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” El-Messidi said. “But the silver lining in this tragedy and this divisive rhetoric is that both communities have helped one another to fight bigotry. And it’s really beautiful to see that happening.”

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