After donations pour in to aid cemetery, groups work on what’s next

Volunteers rake leaves and remove debris at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery during a cleanup event Feb. 22 which drew more than 2,500 people hoping to help after 154 headstones were overturned at the cemetery. Photos: James Griesedieck

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Tarek El-Messidi, a Muslim activist, unfortunately did not have to wait long to use extra money from a fundraiser to help with repairs at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City. 

Less than a week after cemetery staff discovered that 154 headstones had been toppled over Feb. 20, police found roughly 100 headstones knocked over at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, where El-Messidi lives.

“We decided early on to add a line on the crowdfunding page that said any additional funds raised will go to vandalized Jewish centers nationwide, so whenever this happens again — and God forbid it does — we will be ready to help,” said El-Messidi, who leads a nonprofit, Celebrate Mercy, which is dedicated to educating  — and countering misinformation — about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. 

El-Messidi was in New Jersey visiting family when he learned about the vandalism at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in northeast Philadelphia.

“I was just upset; I was just angry that this happened at a Jewish cemetery just a few days later,” he said.

Fortunately, he and another organizer had far exceeded their goals for the fundraising campaign. They had aimed to raise $20,000 for the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery repairs and reached that goal in just three hours. By Tuesday, Feb. 28, the campaign — which announced that it would dedicate additional funding to the Philly cemetery — had raised more than $142,000.

Now El-Messidi is coordinating with Jewish Federations in the two cities to allocate the funds to cemetery repairs and security upgrades. 

The unusual turn of events — two Jewish cemeteries vandalized a week apart, a Muslim fundraising campaign for a Jewish cause that far exceeds its goals — has provided the nonprofit organizations with an unexpected supply of money that they are now determining how to use.

Rosenbloom Monument Company has already repaired the majority of the Chesed Shel Emeth headstones, resealing the headstones to their bases. Philip Weiss, president of Rosenbloom, had pledged to do the repairs for free. 

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis — which also raised more than $136,000 for the Jewish Cemetery Restoration and Security Fund  — said he expects the majority of the money to go towards improving security around Jewish institutions. At Chesed Shel Emeth and other Jewish cemeteries, that could mean investing in items such as surveillance cameras and upgraded fences, he said.

In addition to the cemetery vandalism, Jewish Community Centers and Jewish day schools around the country continue to receive bomb threats; 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.

Federation here could soon hire a security coordinator who would provide ongoing consultations with Jewish institutions about items such as evacuation plans, lighting and cameras, said Rehfeld. Twenty-six other Jewish communities have hired someone to fill that position on a full- or part-time basis, he said. 

But he and other federation leaders had been reluctant to do so in St. Louis.

“We have been resistant because once you begin down that path, it’s very hard to unwind,” said Rehfeld. “It’s more of a permanent commitment but we all sort of are feeling that the situation is ratcheting it up to the point where we ought” to be investing additional money in security.

The organization had started to use an emergency alert notification system two years ago.

The concern about additional measures like hiring a security coordinator had been “you want to make very sure you aren’t contributing to the very fear that people are starting to feel,” Rehfeld said. Also, “whenever you invest in one thing, it means you can’t invest in something else…. I would prefer to live in a world where I invest in Jewish education, in Jewish engagement, in support for Israel and the Jewish people then having to take money from any of those things and invest it in security.”

The organizers of the Muslim campaign also stated on the crowdfunding site that money left over from repairs at Chesed Shel Emeth would go towards security improvements and repairs of other vandalized Jewish centers such as the Philadelphia cemetery, which was established in the late 19th century; the vandalism was discovered by a man visiting his father’s grave, according to the Jewish Exponent. The Muslim activists are working with federation officials to allocate the funding.

“The silver lining in all of this tragedy and this rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is that both communities are now reaching out to each other and willing to work together to combat (hate),” El-Messidi said. “I think the (fundraising campaign) has changed the narrative of who Muslims are for the public-at-large and for Jewish Americans.”

But according to Rehfeld, “there is a terrible rumor circulating that the Jewish Community of St Louis is shunning contributions by the Muslim community. It is false and despicable.”

He posted on Facebook (and in an op-ed on page 11) that he had not publicly thanked specific efforts like El-Messidi’s campaign — rather at a public vigil he thanked Muslims generally — because Federation had not yet been able to “vouch for the funds being raised in their name.”

In talking with a Muslim fundraiser — Rehfeld did not name the person and did not immediately respond to a request for an interview — the Federation CEO wrote that he expressed the “strongest words of thanks and gratitude. And it will continue with a presumption of charity: that I presume these efforts are honest and above board.”

The organization, he added, is now working on a transfer of funds so that the Muslim activists “are confident (yes, on their end) that their dollars go to real projects in St Louis as well.”