Teenagers weigh in on Jewish cemetery vandalism

Philip Weiss, president of Rosenbloom Monument Co. (center) works to reset headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth on Feb. 21.  Photo: James Griesedieck


When more than 150 tombstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City were overturned in February, news of the desecration reached around the globe. The cemetery was featured prominently in national and international newspapers and broadcasts in the days after the attack. Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens even paid a visit. But the destruction hit particularly close to home for a number of St. Louis teens, many of whom saw their ancestors’ graves overturned.

“I was saddened by the news, but I was also surprised that this had happened in St. Louis,” Clayton High School senior Benjamin Yaffee said. “This did not represent University City at all. For that reason, it was really strange to see articles about the tragedy trending nationally.” Benjamin has more than 15 family members buried at the cemetery, including great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.

Other teens whose families were impacted described their reaction similarly. Ladue Horton Watkins High School sophomore Hannah Suffian has great-grandparents and countless other relatives buried at Chesed Shel Emeth. “It was astonishing [to hear about the desecration],” Hannah told Ohr Chadash. “It made my heart sink when I first heard the news.” She said she is always saddened to hear about anti-Semitic acts that occur. This time, she “felt even worse,” she said. “We never consider that something like this could happen to us,” Hannah continued. 

In the aftermath of the desecration, support for the St. Louis Jewish community came from across the country. Pence and Greitens joined a large crowd who volunteered to clean up the cemetery the following week, including Parkway Central junior Emily Goldstein, whose great-grandmother is buried at the cemetery. 

“I felt it is my duty not only as a Jewish person, but as a person, to help in a time of crisis,” she told Ohr Chadash. Emily said she went to Chesed El Shemeth with her mother and two brothers to “come together with many and spread love after a terrible thing occurred.”

“When I was there, it was really cool to see people coming together in such a horrible time,” she said. “Everyone was cleaning up the cemetery and just doing a good thing in respect to the Jewish community.” Emily was especially heartened to see individuals gathered from all religions. “I saw Muslims, Christians, and all types of people there helping the Jewish community,” she recounted, “which made me feel good as a Jew living in St. Louis to know that there is a strong support system aside from this terrible thing that has happened.”

In addition to the clean-up, a group of Muslim-Americans raised over $80,000 online for the cleanup efforts. “Although this situation is beyond horrific, so much good has come from it,” Hannah said, citing the online fundraising. “It makes me proud to know that I have a supportive community during such a politically hard time.”

Benjamin mentioned his gratification at the money raised by Muslim-Americans, and the impact of seeing rabbis, an imam, and a deacon at a service on the day he and his mother went to the cemetery. “It felt good to see the community come together to heal,” he added.

While St. Louisans of all ages have grappled with responding to the desecration, Emily also pointed to another positive outcome. When her family arrived to help clean, they were unsure of where her great-grandmother was buried. “We happened to stumble upon her grave in the area that we were cleaning in. What are the chances of that? My mother says it’s almost like she wanted us to find to her.”