Hundreds gather on Independence Mall to condemn attacks on Jewish institutions

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Hundreds of people showed up for a “Stand Against Hate” rally Thursday at Independence Mall, hoping to unite residents and faith communities following recent vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.

Braving the whipping wind, the crowd sang folk songs and waved signs that declared, “hate has no home here” and “choose love” as elected officials and religious leaders called for interfaith harmony.

The vandals who toppled more than 100 headstones at the Mount Carmel Cemetery were cowards, said Gov. Tom Wolf. He also condemned the nationwide bomb threats against Jewish community centers that included threats made in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

“The vandalism and the bomb threats aimed at the Pennsylvania Jewish community in these past few days are absolutely reprehensible,” Wolf said. “They will fail in their attempts to instill fear in all of us.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks “terroristic threats,” saying the perpetrators seemed bent on dividing the nation. “But what I’ve seen is that it has united us in a meaningful and purposeful way,” Shapiro said.

Federal, state and city authorities are still searching for clues that will help them locate the vandals responsible for the desecration at Mount Carmel. In Philadelphia, $69,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandals.

Shapiro said he will marshal the resources of his office to ensure one outcome.

“They will be brought to justice,” he said.

Crowd listens to bios of immigrants buried at vandalized Mount Carmel cemetery. “May their memories never be forgotten.” #standagainsthate pic.twitter.com/voIUJwXBak

— Bobby Allyn (@BobbyAllyn) March 2, 2017

For Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, the Mount Carmel incident felt personal. Growing up in South Philadelphia, he said, it was about two-thirds Irish Catholic and one-third Jewish.

“And we were all crazy,” he joked.

As he walked through the cemetery to assess the damage, Kenney said he was reminded of the Jewish doctors, dentists and grocers who surrounded him growing up and then became part of the fabric of the city he now leads.

“That denigration and that attack was on them and on my childhood and on my neighborhood,” Kenney said. “And it was cowardly.”

Opposite the stage were droves of sign-bearers, including Stan Kanevsky, a Jewish immigrant who now lives in Lower Merion.

“I’m here to make sure the [Trump] administration sees that these kind of actions are going to be met with equally positive, strong actions to push back and bring justice to the folks who want to commit those horrible things to terrorize innocent people,” Kanevsky said.

Shelly Lependorf’s children attended Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood, which was evacuated Monday following a bomb threat. That’s part of the reason she turned out to the rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

“It’s a terrible thing, regardless. I would feel the same way if it was any faith’s nursery school. It doesn’t matter,” Lependorf said.

“People seem to feel like they have more license to commit hate crimes today than they did a year ago,” she said. “And I think Trump has fueled that.”

Although President Donald Trump condemned anti-Semitic attacks in his speech to Congress, Lependorf said the president could do more.

“I think Trump needs to take a stand on that every day, not just when he’s on national television.”

As speakers repeated that now, more than ever, people of all faiths need to stand together, Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan shook his head in agreement.

“I’m here to support my Jewish brothers and sisters, and the message is: If you don’t stand up for justice for any particular group, then you’re being unjust yourself,” Hassan said

“When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts,” he said.

“Cowards hide behind acts like that,” he said, referring to the cemetery vandalism. “And we have to stand up and speak out against it.”

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