One year later: Chesed Shel Emeth

Scott Biondo, community security director for Jewish Federation, walks through Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery last week, discussing security upgrades with a reporter, including new fencing on the cemetery perimeter (visible at left). Last February, more than 150 gravestones were toppled at the cemetery. Photo: Mike SherwinPhoto: Mike Sherwin

By Eric Berger , Staff Writer

If you drive north on Hanley Road past the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery, you will notice a new 6-foot-high metal fence on your left.

Or maybe you won’t notice it. When more than 150 headstones were knocked over in February 2017, there was already a short fence. A fencing company finished installing the new barrier in December. 

“Within six months, people will think it’s always been there,” said Scott Biondo, community security director for Jewish Federation of St. Louis. “Because they are so used to having fences around the perimeter of a cemetery, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that fence; that’s been there forever.’ ”

Federation has completed security upgrades to the nine local Jewish cemeteries and exhausted the more than $136,000 raised by the organization for that purpose in the wake of the vandalism a year ago, according to Biondo. 

At Chesed Shel Emeth, Federation funded and led efforts to install the fences, lighting and security cameras, among other items. But there were also additional measures that they considered and ultimately opted not to add. The organization worked to find that balance between security and intrusiveness that is often discussed in the wake of criminal acts. 

“We were sensitive on the things that we did to be effective while not encroaching on the experience of going to a cemetery,” said Biondo.

A year after the vandalism occurred, University City Police have not made any arrests. “It will remain an open investigation until we actually solve it,” said University City Police Captain Fredrick Lemons. He encouraged anyone who hears anything about a vandalism at a cemetery or has any tips to contact the police department. 

“Even when a case may seem cold, when we receive information, we follow it up,” he added.

Nevertheless, Biondo said he is confident that cemeteries are now more secure.

Prior to the new fence, an intruder could have easily hopped over the barrier — which is likely what happened during the vandalism, he said.

 “We were sensitive on the things that we did to be effective while not encroaching on the experience of going to a cemetery,” 

There also often weren’t cameras to record people entering or leaving the cemetery, or even if there were, parts of the cemetery were poorly illuminated, so people watching the footage would not have been able to see someone who entered at night, Biondo said.

At some of the Jewish cemeteries, fences or boundaries remain the same height, but there are now cameras positioned to record someone who would trespass after the cemetery is closed, Biondo said. At Chesed Shel Emeth, Biondo and others discussed adding barbed wire on top of the new fence but ultimately decided against it. That was in part because it could make for an unpleasant image in a Jewish community that remembers the Holocaust, he said.

“We are looking for a robust barrier without any psychologically-negative connotations,” Biondo said.

Police also patrol the University City cemeteries more often since the vandalism occurred, said Barry Needle, executive director of the United Cemetery Association, which manages Chevra Kadisha, B’nai Amoona and United Hebrew cemeteries. 

Needle, who has worked for the association since 1999 said that with cemeteries, it’s particularly important to treat employees, such as gravediggers, nicely because “the physical work is hard and people don’t stay long.” If he is nice to them, they are more likely to be nice to visitors and neighbors, thereby improving security, he said. 

Chesed Shel Emeth Executive Director Anita Feigenbaum said she now has to be more alert to traffic in and out of the cemetery for security reasons. The vandalism has “changed the scope” of her job, she said.

“Our goal is to bury our loved ones with care and in the Jewish tradition, but it also has become important to maintain a sense of security that you didn’t used to have to have; it used to just be an open space, but now you have to make sure and take precautions (such as) having increased drive-bys by police when you have funerals or dedications,” said Feigenbaum.

Despite those concerns and the fact that police haven’t made any arrests, the Chesed Shel Emeth Society still plans to commemorate its 130-year anniversary this year. At the society’s cemetery on White Road in Chesterfield, the organization plans to dedicate a section of land for a memorial garden and wall to allow people to honor friends and family members who weren’t buried at Chesed Shel Emeth, such as Holocaust victims and members of the military, Feigenbaum said. 

And in spite of the increased security, people are mostly able to visit their loved ones as they would have before the vandalism. Gerald Axelbaum, a retired teacher, has a number of family members buried at the B’nai Amoona cemetery, including his father-in-law. He often wouldn’t be able to visit until after work, when the cemetery was officially closed, but there was a sidegate that usually was ajar, he said. The gate is no longer open.

He describes it as a minor inconvenience.

“I can’t imagine it’s of consequence to anybody else — I don’t think anybody minds at all, or they might even feel good about it,” said Axelbaum, a member of B’nai Amoona.

Still he said, “Part of me hated to see the expenditures on security because I’m not sure how often” acts such as the vandalism “would happen.”

“Cemeteries are magical places and very spiritual places, and I just like their openness,” he said.

Soon after the vandalism here, a pair of Muslim activists used a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to help with the repairs at Chesed Shel Emeth. The organization, Celebrate Mercy, far exceeded its initial fundraising goal of  $20,000, raising more than $160,000.  According to its website, Celebrate Mercy is dedicated to educating  — and countering misinformation — about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. It provided $40,000 to Chesed Shel Emeth, according to Feigenbaum, and distributed $5,000 to the New England Holocaust Memorial, which was twice vandalized during the summer. 

An additional $30,000 helped with restorations at Golden Hill Cemetery, a long-neglected Jewish burial ground in Denver, according to the Celebrate Mercy Facebook page. Tarek El-Messidi, the founder of the organization, stated in an email that the group will soon distribute an additional $20,000 to $30,000 to Golden Hill. The remaining funds will be used to respond to future incidents in the Jewish community.