After the news broke in February that someone or some group had toppled 275 headstones in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia’s Wissinoming neighborhood, thousands of people from around the world contributed small donations to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
It added up to about $300,000 to repair the vandalized stones — many of them cracked — and another 225 that were damaged by age and weather. The Jewish Federation also smoothed out the landscaping to ensure the ground was sound and repaired security fencing around the cemetery perimeter.
“The headstones are complicated. They have art and Hebrew letters that have to be repaired and lined up,” said Naomi Adler, president of CEO of the Jewish Federation. “We used the National Park Service and monument experts. It was much more expensive than we expected.”
After the work was done, people gathered at the cemetery to sing Oseh Shalom, a prayer for peace. Mayor Jim Kenney, teared up while offering a blessing.
“I’m a little verklempt,” he said with a chuckle.
Kenney, an Irish Catholic who grew up in South Philadelphia, said Jewish community members have always been his friends and neighbors. He said he’s worried our current politics encourage such desecration.
“We have white supremacists and Nazis marching through a college in Virginia, with the president saying there were good people on both sides,” he said. “Well, no. There were not good people on both sides. One side was nothing but bad people.”
Police have said it’s likely a group of people was responsible for the damage; 275 headstones — each weighing up to 1,000 pounds — were desecrated in one night.
It took many hundreds of hours to fix. Each stone had to assessed individually, repaired and sealed. Some stones were so heavy that even several strong people could not hoist them back into place, instead requiring a crane. Much of the labor was volunteer.
This is outside the normal operations of the Jewish Federation, which usually raises money to benefit the poor or for educational programs. Every week, it feeds 11,000 people in need.
“We normally deal with the living,” said Adler. “We’re not going to be able to do this for every cemetery, obviously. But this was such an act of desecration … to us, an act of hatred. And we could actually do something. So we said, ‘Let’s do that, together.’”
Mount Carmel Cemetery abuts Wissinoming Park, a public space and playground where a mural advocating tolerance has been painted since the vandalism incident. The two properties are separated by an aging fence.
The Jewish Federation is calling on the city to be a good neighbor and put in a better fence.
Kenney promised to talk with Kathryn Ott Lovell, the city’s commissioner of parks and recreation, about that request.