Families, faith leaders in Philadelphia pick up the pieces after Jewish cemetery vandalism

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     Rabbi Adam Zeff from the Germantown Jewish Centre surveys the damage at the Mt Carmel Cemetery (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

    Rabbi Adam Zeff from the Germantown Jewish Centre surveys the damage at the Mt Carmel Cemetery (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

    As a news helicopter circled overhead, Mark Levin wove through the tombstones of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia Monday.

    Like so many canvassing the grounds, he was looking for a family headstone. In his case, that of his parents.

    “It’s right around here somewhere,” he said, picking his way among the damaged graves.

    Less than 48 hours earlier, vandals had torn through the old Jewish burial ground in Philadelphia’s Wissinoming section. The perpetrators knocked over at least 150 tombstones, said Mt. Carmel administrator Richard Levy. That number didn’t include the stones private citizens had hoisted back into place before Levy could get a proper count. Police put the number at 100.

    Levin thought he’d be among the lucky ones. His mother and father served in World War II, Levin said. She as a nurse stationed in California, he as a doctor in the Pacific theater. He’d hoped the vandals would see the military insignia on the grave and spare it.

    They didn’t.

    After a speedy, determined search, Levin found a double headstone knocked clean off its pedestal.

    “God, I was coming here just hoping,” he said, his unfinished thought drifting into the breeze.

    The side that acknowledged his parents’ service lay flat against the earth. The exposed side said only the family name —”LEVIN” — and nothing more.

    The families came in somber succession Monday, each praying they would find stones still upright and in tact.

    Judy Pogachefsky was among the fortunate. All four of her families’ gravestones survived unscathed.

    “I’m feel so bad for everybody, but I’m happy for us,” said the Bensalem resident.

    With the trip back to Mt. Carmel came memories, bursting through the gloom like columns of light on an otherwise cloudy day.

    Pogachefsky recalled her grandmother, a woman who defied the stereotypes of a typical Jewish “bubbe.” This was the grandmother, after all, who brought Pogachefsky her first car and let her smoke cigarettes in the open. She was thin. She was stylish. She was, as Pogachesky put it over and over again, “cool.”

    Mark Weissman smiled as he recounted visits to his grandparents’ house on the Jersey Shore. Prior to that they’d run a bakery in Drexel Hill, filled with cookies, cakes, and every kind of pastry you could imagine. Their biggest client? A nearby church.

    Their grave would not survive the spree in one piece.

    Those who came to Mt. Carmel Monday included perfect strangers, drawn by sympathy and a desire to help.

    Outside the cemetery gates, Pastor Don Wright of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Burholme, a neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia,  and Lina Saud, a Muslim college student from Voorhees, New Jersey, struck up a conversation. They commiserated about the state of the world and reinforced their commitment to fixing it.

    “We need to fight this type of ignorance,” Saud said. “And we can do that best by being a community and being there for each other.”

    “Well said,” Wright replied, adding a smile.

    On Monday afternoon, dozens of faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Germantown section of Philadelphia to condemn the destruction. They included rabbis and reverends, priests and imams.

    “Every time we are attacked by hate, in the cemetery or beyond, we come together in solidarity,” said Jill Maderer, rabbi at Rodeph Shalom congregation just north of Center City.

    The press conference ended with a pledge, recited in the soothing familiarity of call and response.

    “I commit to be an instrument of God’s peace,” the leaders said in unison. “To make my home and neighborhood zones of peace, free of fear, filled with respect, and marked by deeds of kindness.”

    With that the room fell silent, broken only by a voice somewhere in the crowd that whispered:

    “Amen.”

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