Community rallies to rebuild cemetery
Students, local groups raise money, volunteer at Chesed Shel Emeth
Following vandalism at a University City, Mo. Jewish cemetery that included the toppling of more than 150 headstones, students and Jewish-affiliated organizations on campus are mobilizing to help.
Members of Chabad at WashU and WashU Hillel have started by raising money and organizing trips to volunteer at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery. In addition, many Washington University students joined students from Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis and University of Missouri-Columbia to attend a clean up event hosted by Governor Eric Greitens yesterday at the cemetery.
“The initial feeling among many people is shock and anger, disbelief,” Director of Chabad Hershey Novak said. “But as the days wear on, and recognizing the incredible outpouring of support from so many people in so many communities—Jewish and not—it reminds us that tragic events can bring us together, make us more resilient and ultimately help build a stronger America.”
Damage to the cemetery was first reported around 8:30 a.m. Monday, according to CNN, but no further details have been released. Additionally, police officers have not confirmed whether they consider the vandalism a hate crime.
Novak was contacted personally by Greitens, who said he wanted a large and diverse group of young people participating in his event on Wednesday afternoon. Novak then reached out to a number of groups on campus—including many sororities and fraternities—to help out.
Sophomore and president of Zeta Beta Tau Perry Gordon was one student who made it out to Greitens’ event. Gordon said he and about 20 of his brothers, some of whom skipped class to attend, joined somewhere between 50-75 other Washington University students.
“We have resources [as a fraternity] that most people don’t really have, so taking advantage of these resources to help out in the community and do things that we’re passionate about is extremely important,” Gordon said. “It’s hard to believe that things like this really happen, so hearing about it in our backyard really makes a bigger impact.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who was in already in town for an unrelated engagement at Fabick Cat in Fenton, Mo., also made a surprise appearance at the event. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he offered words of support to the community while condemning the vandalism.
While the toppled tombstones had already been fixed by this point, volunteers at the event helped clean the cemetery by raking leaves and cleaning gravestones. Gordon said he and other ZBT brothers volunteered and handed out water bottles and other supplies.
Efforts for fundraising through Chabad and Hillel have already raised around $3,000 for the cemetery, according to Hillel Leadership Council Vice President of Operations and senior Ryan Friedman.
“The way we did this was really rapid and fast-acting,” HLC president and senior Neil Stein said. “We saw the need in the community to immediately address the issue as quickly as possible, and I think that one of the things we’ve enjoyed most about it is the amount of quick efforts that have been put out by lots of people in order to get this arranged as quickly as possible.”
Hillel and Chabad have been working together to raise awareness on social media, raise money through their joint fundraising campaign and volunteer through trips to the cemetery to help with filing and fielding phone calls, many from people who want to help or know if their families were affected.
For Friedman and Stein, who plan on visiting the cemetery to volunteer today, the outpouring of support from the community—both from the Jewish community and beyond—has been the most encouraging outcome of the otherwise tragic event.
Friedman cited a pair of Muslim activists who have already raised $90,000, more than needed to repair the cemetery and over four times their original goal of $20,000—a target the pair reached within three hours.
Stein said he was also comforted by the selflessness of students who wanted to help.
“For many students, it would be very challenging to get to the cemetery and back—it’s not exactly within walking distance—and we’re all busy college students. This is midterms; this is the most stressful time of the year, and people are putting in so much more effort than I’ve seen at any other point in time,” Stein said.
The vandalism comes after a weekend in which 11 Jewish Community Centers (JCC) around the country received bomb threats, following a number of similar threats over the past few months.
Stein, whose mother works and volunteers at two JCCs that have been threatened, said the cemetery vandalism was particularly striking.
“It’s a little scary because we all come from Jewish Community Centers or grew up at these Jewish Community Centers that have been threatened, but until now they’ve just been threats,” he said. “Seeing the reality that it can happen is a little terrifying, but also seeing the outpouring of community standing strong with us has been one of the happier moments in dark days.”
While details of the investigation into the vandalism have not been released yet, Novak warned against jumping to conclusions about whether it was connected to the current political climate.
“The truth is that nobody really knows because the police—who are doing a wonderful job collecting evidence and so forth—it’s ultimately up to them to complete an investigation. And once they find the perpetrators, then the police can investigate their motives and their intent, and then there will be more clarity,” he said. “It’s unwise to speculate absent evidence.”
Additional reporting by Ella Chochrek.