Standing Tall

Estimates of up to 2,500 people gathered at Chesed Shel Emeth on Feb. 22 to help in a cleanup effort at the cemetery. Here the group listens to remarks by Gov. Eric Greitens, who put out a call on social media for volunteers to join him in a show of community support after 154 headstones were overturned or broken at the cemetery. Photo: James Griesedieck

Jewish Light Editorial

In physics, Isaac Newton told us, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That observation certainly applies to the inspirational response to last week’s horrible desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City.

As the shock and revulsion over the vandalism spread, the Jewish community and St. Louisans in general mobilized. Hundreds of volunteers flocked to the cemetery to do everything possible to repair and restore the historic resting place for thousands of loved ones of present and former members of our local Jewish community.

Within days, this army of volunteers, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, pitched in to set aright nearly all of the scores gravestones that had been toppled.  The stones still need to be secured, and the broken ones will need to be replaced, but for the most part order was restored.

Philip Weiss, owner of the Weiss and Rosenbloom monument companies, generously donated time, staff and expertise to ensure the stones were replaced properly. Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the St. Louis for another event, joined Gov. Eric Greitens and hundreds of others last Wednesday in the cleanup efforts, with Jews and non-Jews working side by side to scrub headstones, rake leaves and help the revered cemetery recover.

Financially, the response was overwhelming as well. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and other groups mobilized a response that included a substantial sum pledged by a Muslim-American group, many times the amount that was expected.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Unfortunately, Newton’s laws could not foresee the kind of negative reactions that actions like the cemetery vandalism can bring as well.

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Federation, had to take to Facebook to combat what he called “a terrible rumor that the Jewish Community of St Louis is shunning contributions by the Muslim community. It is false and despicable.” (See related commentary, opposite page.)

Rehfeld explained that he has thanked the Muslim effort and others at every opportunity, but he did so only in general terms to avoid having fake charities, with no oversight, take unfair advantage of a terrible situation.

“We will continue to work together in a spirit of collaborative partnership with any group,” Rehfeld wrote, “to help them get the dollars they raised to the cemetery and more broadly to our community. And we will be delighted to announce and celebrate those gifts and efforts — very publicly by name — when that happens.

“What we do not need is to turn a moment of tremendous unity into division because of responsible philanthropic stewardship.”

Another sad after-effect of the U. City desecration was similar vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Roughly 100 stones were knocked over or damaged at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in an act that was described this way by a police detective investigating the crime:

“It’s criminal. This is beyond vandalism. It’s beyond belief.”

No one knows whether this was a copycat crime. As this is written, U. City police still have not said whether they believe what happened at Chesed Shel Emeth was an anti-Semitic attack or just wanton vandalism aimed at no particular group. No arrests have been made.

But while the cemetery attack made headlines locally, nationally and worldwide, and it was sad that the vandalism put U. City on the media map in a negative light, we can take great pride in the community spirit that restored Chesed Shel Emeth and brought groups together in a positive way.  

The vandals’ actions served to bring out the best in our community. Once again, Newton was proved right.