Interfaith donations, support pour in after cemetery vandalism

Muslim American Rashidah Rafat came to help with the cleanup. “The only way mankind can move forward is through peace, harmony and love,” she said.  Photo: Ellen Futterman

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

After Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced that he would lead a cleanup last week of the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, he heard from an unexpected volunteer: Vice President Mike Pence.

“The vice president said, ‘I am so inspired by what the people of Missouri are doing, by the way you are handling this,’ ” Greitens told reporters, adding that Pence asked if he could also volunteer. “And I said, ‘Yes, sir. We would be pleased to have you.’ ” 

The vice president visited the University City cemetery, located at Olive Boulevard and Hanley Road, days after 154 headstones were knocked over or damaged. 

By the time Pence and Greitens arrived last Wednesday afternoon, the majority of the headstones had already been repaired, but many in the Jewish community were still troubled by what they saw as a recent increase in anti-Semitism. (As of earlier this week, University City Police had not made any arrests or determined whether the vandalism constitutes a hate crime.)

Most of the volunteers — estimates ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 — clapped and were eager to shake Pence’s hand. But some blamed his boss, President Donald Trump, for remaining silent too long about anti-Semitic acts.

Pence’s visit to the cemetery was unannounced, though he was already in St. Louis. He toured a small business in Fenton with Greitens earlier in the day. Greitens, who is Jewish, had posted on Facebook a request for volunteers to help him clean up the cemetery for an hour.

“There are simple things that need to be done — but at times like this, it’s simple things that send a powerful signal about who we are as a state and as a community,” Greitens wrote on Facebook. “There is a concept in Jewish teaching and thought known as tikkun olam. It translates literally into ‘repairing the world,’ but what it means more broadly is that we all have an obligation to one another and to be of service. It is in moments like this that the world is in most need of repair, and we must do our part.”

The governor and vice president made their remarks atop a flatbed truck on a path inside the cemetery. They were flanked by Chesed Shel Emeth Society executive director Anita Feigenbaum and Jewish Federation of St. Louis President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld.

“There is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism,” Pence said. “I must tell you, the people of Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this place and for the Jewish community, and I want to thank you for that inspiration — for showing the world what America is really all about.”

On Sunday, Pence toured the site of a Nazi-era concentration camp in Dachau, Germany and spoke with a Holocaust survivor.

The vice president’s outreach to the Jewish community comes as some have criticized the Trump administration for not publicly condemning anti-Semitism. in the last two months, 89 bomb threats have been called in to 72 Jewish institutions in the United States and Canada, according to the JCC Association of North America.

After a visit last week to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Trump said, “the anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” 

At the cemetery, Greitens said that he had received a phone call from Trump that morning and that he had “wanted to personally thank all of you — thank for you standing up in the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Alan Simon, a member of Young Israel of St. Louis, a Modern Orthodox congregation, did not have any concerns about Trump being an anti-Semite — even before his condemnation of threats against Jews and the outreach by Pence.

“I know Trump’s grandchildren are Jewish, and I know of philanthropic projects that he had been involved in and that his father had been involved in and I didn’t feel any anti-Semitism from the White House,” said Simon, who owns a company that provides hands-on science programs for elementary school students and is president of the board of Chesed Shel Emeth.

Simon spoke with both the vice president and the governor as they walked throughout the cemetery. The cemetery slowly filled with people carrying rakes to pick up gumballs and leaves in between rows of headstones.

Marc Daniels was handing out colorful yarmulkes with an inscription that read: “Muslims, Christians & Jews Weeding Out Hate Together.” He was close enough to hand one to the vice president, who responded by giving Daniels a hug.

Daniels said he felt an affinity to Pence because Daniels had also visited Dachau five years ago. 

”Hatred can never be destroyed. At best it can be composted,” said Daniels, of Springfield, Ill. “So if we get our kids to weed out hate together — black, white, Muslims, Christians and Jews — and compost the hate, literally and figuratively, we can then plant seeds of peace.”

Greitens told reporters that he did think there had been an increase in anti-Semitism. He said he had been talking with leaders of Jewish federations about the threats against the community centers.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to stand up in the fight against anti-Semitism,” he said. 

In addition to hundreds of people from all streams of Judaism, as well as the unaffiliated, there were a significant number of Christian and Muslim volunteers at the cleanup.

“I’m so proud of the way that everyone who is here today is coming out to demonstrate in a positive way what we can do to support the Jewish community and what is so fantastic is that we have people of all faiths coming out and doing this work,” Greitens said. 

Robert Case raked leaves as Epstein Hebrew Academy eighth graders Sarah Kline, 14, and Ilana Meissner, 13, bagged them. 

Case, who converted to Judaism and is a member of Central Reform Congregation, said he left work at ExpressScripts to take part in the clean-up and solidarity rally. He came in time to hear the vice president’s remarks, but thought they sounded like “empty rhetoric.”

“He was saying bland lines that had been rehearsed and set in stone by the current administration, which really needs to change,” said Case, who lives in University City. 

After the cleanup was completed, volunteers walked to the front of the cemetery for an interfaith vigil organized by Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis featuring Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy as well as the governor and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. By that time, the vice president had left. 

Jeanine Molloff, a Jewish speech pathologist, said she did not want him there in the first place.

“Pence follows Trump’s marching orders,” she said. “To have somebody here from that administration is a slap in the face. He did not belong here; he was not welcome.”

Editor Ellen Futterman contributed information to this story.