Vandalized tombstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Feb. 26, 2017. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Adam Zeff

Mount Carmel Cemetery: Stones toppled, stones righted

February 28, 2017

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PHILADELPHIA (RNS) I am a rabbi, a Jewish leader and teacher, who serves a congregation only a short distance away from Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Several families in my congregation have loved ones buried in the cemetery, a history of connection stretching back nearly 100 years. When I heard on Sunday that the cemetery had been desecrated, I felt compelled to go there, to see what had happened with my own eyes.

What I saw reminded me of something very deep and very ancient in Jewish tradition.

“When I die, treat me with true love” (Genesis 47:29). In the Bible, when Jacob is coming to the end of his life, he calls his son Joseph to him and asks that his body be treated with “true love” – in Hebrew, hesed v'emet.

In Jewish tradition, how we treat the dead has long been seen as the ultimate test of love and loyalty, since in burying, memorializing and remembering those we have lost, we are performing an act of love for someone who can never perform such an act for us in return.

Caring for graves and for cemeteries is an act of pure altruism, the "true love" that Jacob asks from his son. So it is no surprise that one of the first things that Jews did upon arriving in America was to buy land and create cemeteries in which to bury and honor the dead.

In that context, the intentional toppling of hundreds of gravestones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in northeast Philadelphia that was discovered on Sunday is a shocking and painful violation for the Jewish community.

Vandalized tombstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Feb. 26, 2017. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Adam Zeff

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

As I saw when I spent time at the cemetery Sunday afternoon, and as you can see in the photo above, this was not a casual act; these gravestones weigh hundreds of pounds, and some were even reinforced with iron bars connecting them to their bases. Bringing them down to the ground required great force and determination.

This is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, and it is surrounded by other, non-Jewish cemeteries that were not affected, so it seems hard to escape the conclusion that Jewish graves were targeted.

At the cemetery, I grieved for the families whose loving attempts to memorialize in stone those they had lost were desecrated, brought crashing to the earth and in some cases broken.  The sadness and anger and despair at such a senseless act were overwhelming.

And then I met some people who had come to the cemetery on hearing what had happened, filled with the desire to make things right. Some of them were Jews, some were Christians, and some were Muslims.

No one organized them to come, and they had no clear plan. But they all shared the feeling that what had happened at the cemetery was wrong and should not be allowed to stand. You can see some of them in the photo below.

People replace vandalized tombstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia on Feb. 26, 2017. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Adam Zeff

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I joined them as they gathered together to try to lift up some of the stones that had fallen and replace them on their bases. It was difficult work, and many efforts had to be abandoned when we couldn't move the huge stones even a millimeter. But slowly, carefully, we lifted one stone after another, strangers of many faiths working together to begin, in a small way, to repair the damage.

Neither photo by itself tells the full story of what happened in Philadelphia this week. Only both photos together do that. I saw with my own eyes evidence of the darkness of hatred that can enfold us, and I saw with my own eyes the sparks of light and love that shine even more brightly when darkness is thickest.

The shock, the grief, the worry and the fear that Jews in Philadelphia and religious and ethnic minorities across America are feeling are real. And the good people of all faiths and races who surround us, who partner with us to push back the darkness with their light — they, too, are real. Neither cancels out the other.

May all of our hearts be open enough to let this experience of darkness affect us, to feel the pain of destruction and loss, of fear and foreboding. And may all of our hearts stay open enough to reach out in support to those around us, to reject hate and embrace love, and to let us see the sparks of goodness that shine in the darkness.

Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia)


  1. A absolutely marvelous and poignant commentary. Without undue haste I would like to move towards a practical measure in light of these senseless events. Though it would involve some expense, perhaps the cemeteries should be equipped with security cameras. Since such devices are becoming ubiquitous anyway, they may be a useful tool in identifying and apprehending the miscreants who are committing these crimes.

  2. Gee, I’ll bet you’re the first person to think of that. I’m glad you are moving “without undue haste” on the matter. By the way, how do you adequately cover large open areas with video cameras that are protected from vandalism, capable of providing both sufficient coverage and enough detail to identify the “miscreants”, and are not aesthetically unpleasant? How does one power all of these cameras and distribute and record the video signals, generally without nearby structures available? “Some expense”? Hell, yeah. Might as well just pray for it.

  3. People are calling for action but realistically nothing can be done but have the surrounding community get together, repair the damage and don’t let them win.

  4. You’re right Edward, it’s an empowering story and probably the best way to show the (probably) white supremacists/Nazis/KKK that they cannot win and will not ever win.

    If there are fences around the cemeteries perhaps cameras can monitor the fences. I’m no security expert, but I hope more can be done to protect those cemeteries and every cemetery.

  5. Agreed, yet it is a sad thought that such measures are a necessary consideration. I appreciate that Jews and Christians have traditions about their dead, though in some ways it seems the Chinese and Japanese approach more closely meets the Jewish approach in terms of veneration. However, no grave should be desecrated for any reason by anybody. In metaphysical terms, my perspective is that in the final analysis there is no human spirit occupying a burial space in place or time and no one can harm the dust of human remains in either a practical or spiritual sense; but the attitude behind the act is abhorrent.

  6. I agree with the uniting of the community, but I’d like to find some practical means to capture and punish the twisted varmints.

  7. You missed my point entirely with regard to undue haste. I did not wish to move from reflecting on the painfulness of the act and the positive of the united efforts to ameliorate the damage so swiftly as to imply that practical measures are the first consideration, the commentary was well written and deserved thoughtful reflection. Nor did I consider my suggestion as original or particularly insightful, but the technology is clearly available and there may be useful ways of bringing down the costs. Maybe it would be cheaper to provide 24 hour patrols, I don’t know. As for aesthetics that would be a purely tertiary consideration in my view.

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