Governor, vice president pitch in during cemetery cleanup

Darlene and Paul Schroeder hold a placard at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery cleanup event Feb. 22. Photo: James Griesedieck

By Eric Berger & Ellen Futterman, Staff writer & editor

Rashidah Rafat, a home health care nurse who is a Muslim-American, came to Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery last week to help with a cleanup organized by Gov. Eric Greitens. She arrived about an hour before the official start time of 3 p.m. and wandered through the area where vandalism had taken place over the weekend. Like others who had come early, she was amazed by the progress.

By mid-day Wednesday, nearly all of the 154 headstones that were overturned had been secured to their upright position. Sixteen had been severely damaged and will need further repair.

“The only way mankind can move forward is through peace, harmony and love,” said Rafat, who lives in north St. Louis and is very active in the St. Louis interfaith community. “What happened here was senseless. Today it is Jewish cemetery but tomorrow it can be something else.

“Islam teaches, my neighbor is the whole world. My job as a Muslim is to do whatever I can to help the community, to help mankind live in peace with one another.”

Rafat was among more than 1,000 volunteers  — some estimates were as high as 2,500 — who filled the University City cemetery last Wednesday (Feb. 22) for a gathering highlighted by a visit from Greitens and Vice President Mike Pence.

Spaces between rows of headstones were filled with volunteers, who raked and bagged leaves and gumballs. Meanwhile, others were trying to shake hands and meet with the governor and vice president.

Darlene and Paul Schroeder, retired teachers who live in Florissant, stood with a sign that read, “Hate Hurts.”

“We have driven by this cemetery hundreds of times in our lifetime and when we heard about what happened, we just thought, ‘You can’t not be there; you have got to be there to show support,’ ” said Darlene Schroeder, who is Lutheran and taught German at Hazelwood Central High School.

She is 70 and her husband is 71. As they drove from their home to the cemetery, Paul Schroeder, a mathematics teacher, said he was thinking, “If you show intolerance for one group, that allows all groups to be intolerant of anybody they want to be intolerant of.”

The couple spent a year in Germany and say they have been following the rise of right-wing political parties in Europe.

“It’s almost a worldwide thing of people turning inwards instead of focusing on how to join with others,” Paul Schroeder said.

After they had finished the volunteer effort, people migrated to the main entrance of the cemetery, where clergy and politicians such as Greitens and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, had gathered.

University City Police have not yet determined whether the vandalism constitutes a hate crime, but Jewish Federation of St. Louis President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld told the crowd that the designation should not be the focus.

“Was this an act of anti-Semitism? We don’t yet know, but in some ways, it doesn’t matter. The acts that have happened over the last few months have raised concerns in all of us,” he said.

He called for people to take three steps when encountering racism or bigotry: “Name it, condemn it and do something about it.”

Rehfeld also credited Greitens for helping in the fundraising for repairs at the cemetery and upgrading security at Jewish institutions. 

“We here in Missouri can show the world that in the face of this kind of vile act, we can come together through acts of beauty and love and service and demonstrate what we are capable of,” said Greitens.

Clergy offered prayers and words of support for the Jewish community. 

“We stand with our Jewish friends and neighbors in your time of sadness, fear and uncertainty,” said Catholic Deacon Carl Sommer from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

“We believe these acts of hate are not only an attack against the Jewish community but an attack on all of us and the values we hold as peoples of faith and as Americans,” said Mufti Asif Umar, Imam of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel of St. Louis referred to the story of Jews receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.

“Our tradition teaches us that… we stood as one people, with one heart,” the Modern Orthodox rabbi said. “We stand that way today, as one people with one heart, with all of you, a unified voice that says there is no room in our community for bigotry, hatred or anti-Semitism or violence of any kind—and especially not against the most vulnerable and defenseless: those who rest peacefully for eternity.”