On July 30, the Jewish community in Pennsylvania was shocked by the news that the historic Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized.
More than 120 headstones in Adath Jeshurun Cemetery were toppled and knocked down.
While we don’t know who committed this act of destruction and we may never find out, there is an important lesson we can take away from this unfortunate episode.
We have become aware of a serious and widespread problem concerning Jewish cemeteries throughout North America – destruction caused by our own negligence.
As once-bustling Jewish neighborhoods empty and Jews migrate elsewhere, many Jewish cemeteries throughout the United States and Eastern Europe are becoming abandoned and have fallen into disrepair. Toppled headstones, feral animals, vandalism and overgrown shrubbery — all signs of neglect — can be seen. This is disrespectful to our ancestors, and should not be tolerated.
Our mission is to identify cemetery sites in abandonment or disrepair, give advice on restoration and teach cemeteries how to prepare for the future.
In our work at Jewish R.E.A.C.H., we have witnessed this senseless vandalism in many locations throughout North America. It creates a tear in our hearts. We want to help the Jewish Community of Greater Philadelphia deal with this shocking experience, and prevent a future recurrence.
This hurtful vandalism should be a rallying cry for communities to gather around their cemeteries, provide the necessary resources to thwart such attacks, as well as protect the valued genealogical history carved upon the tombstones.
Unfortunately, the word ‘cemetery’ is not a social buzz word, making it difficult to get the attention of the Jewish community’s leaders. The time has come to take off that shielding coat so all members of the community understand the importance of the cemetery within the Life Cycle Process.
An important step to facilitate this understanding is to educate.
Thus, at Jewish R.E.A.C.H., we focus on educating our youth and taking them to visit cemetery sites, learning proper decorum, understanding the symbols, and connecting to our heritage.
Contrary to what you might assume, children are not scared of cemeteries. They are inquisitive, and raise fascinating questions. Their questions helped us discover genealogical connections.
A youth project that combines cemetery education with “tech wizardry” is collecting data from hundreds of tombstones, and entering it into a searchable online database, thus preserving it for posterity. Through this process, Jewish families across America may discover the final resting place of their distant relatives. We are bringing these programs to Jewish Day Schools and synagogue Sunday Schools across the county.
Vandalism and desecration of cemeteries–Jewish or otherwise—should never happen, but perhaps there is a silver lining in this incident.
Let this be a wakeup call for us to commit ourselves to the preservation of our heritage by ensuring our Jewish cemeteries throughout the country are properly maintained, honoring our ancestors and keeping their memories alive..