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Disturbing Memories

March 10, 2017

It has been a very difficult few weeks for all of us. Just five days after more than a hundred headstones were toppled and damaged at Chesed Shel Emet Cemetery in St. Louis {February 21, 2017}, almost a hundred headstones were pushed over, severed from their foundations, at Mt. Carmel Cemetery here in Philadelphia {February 25-26, 2017}. It takes willful, vicious intentionality to tear down upright headstones from their gravesites and send them crashing to the ground. Many of those headstones weigh several hundred pounds, so you can begin to imagine the time and effort it took to wreak this destruction.

Jewish cemeteries have long held a special status in Jewish life, and much care is given to properly maintain them. Whenever a Jewish community was created, it had to begin with a gan yeladim, a kindergarten; a bikur cholim, the commitment and means to extend aid to the ill and visit the sick; and a chevra kadisha, a group of people who would see to the preparation of the body for burial in the Jewish cemetery.

The Talmud refers to Jewish graves as “more beautiful than royal palaces” {Sanhedrin 96b} and every effort was made to protect the burial sites by erecting walls around cemeteries. If a cemetery was vandalized, damaged headstones were repaired or replaced by new headstones. If a damaged headstone could not be repaired, it was often refashioned into a headstone for someone who could not afford one.

I was stunned when I saw photos in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Jewish Exponent showing scenes of the devastation at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, not very far from here on Frankford Avenue near Cheltenham Avenue. It was as if images of desecrated cemeteries taken in other places – from times in the distant past – had been transposed onto the pages of our papers. I had seen similar images before, but the photographs could not fully convey the sight that greeted my eyes when I went to the cemetery this past Monday afternoon.

The cemetery was almost empty, save for a young man in his mid-twenties, looking for the graves of his family. He was like a soldier walking through a field where a horrible battle had taken place. In all directions, strewn over dirt and tufts of grass, it was as if there were the fallen, broken bodies of his comrades, while others were seemingly sitting upright trying to absorb what had happened.

It took me a while to comprehend what I was seeing. No row was spared the assault. Where two or three headstones in a line were standing, another two-three-four-five-six-seven had collapsed near them. Some lay whole where they fell, but many others crashed into their neighbors, broken and all the more forlorn for it.

The more I advanced into the cemetery, the slower my pace became until I was motionless, trying to take it all in. I had only walked a hundred feet. It was so difficult to process. Who would do such a thing? Who could do such a thing?

I looked to my left, my eyes scanning three rows of carnage. It was as if a line of trees had been torn apart by a tornado. I walked over to the first cluster of fallen headstones and read some of the inscriptions: “Beloved son and brother” one read, with the name of the deceased, the date of his death and his age at the time of passing; “Beloved wife and mother” read another, providing her name and date of death. Then I walked toward another cluster of fallen headstones: “Mother” in large, oversize granite letters read one; “Sgt. Jack E. Jacoby, U.S.M.C., July 21, 1945, Age 21 Years” which, like some of the others, had fallen at an angle away from its base, though others were perched on their bases’ edges, as if unwilling to completely sever ties from what had for so long connected them to their graves. Some had been pushed over, landing flush to their base, as if with a sigh.

There were headstones with a Star of David or ‘Tree of Life’ engraved upon them. Many had the Hebrew names of the deceased, and some had only the family’s last name in large letters. The years of death were evocative of eras: 1948 and 1943, and 1923 and 1994, and 1929 and 1935, and 1942 and 1934 and 1964, and of course the years of death etched on the fallen headstones were not linear. They jumped decades and then doubled back by a year or more, depending where they fell from where they had once stood.

Some of those that were still standing had small stones resting on them, placed there by family and friends who had visited, and some of those that had been ripped to the ground had fragments of chipped stone resting on them from neighboring fallen headstones as if to say, “We too remember where you once stood.” It was heart-rending.

I paused over every fallen headstone and said Kaddish. Two-three-four times in one section before slowly turning and walking a few paces to another cluster of fallen headstones, three-four-five-six-seven times there, and on and on. Then over to another cluster where there were eight that had been pushed over. I said Kaddish for individual headstones that were no more than twenty feet apart from a neighboring cluster before I felt overwhelmed and had to stop. Then I regrouped and walked to another cluster of headstones, and then another, and about an hour and a half later I had mourned and paid respects over all of them.

I arrived at the cemetery planning to say Kaddish just inside the gate, but the sight of the devastation was so stunning that I wanted to make it more personal. I wanted to let each fallen headstone know that the individual memory it was intended to convey now reached beyond the family of the deceased to the mishpachah of ahm Yisrael.

Purim arrives on Sunday to remind us, as if we need to be reminded, that threats abound, vigilance is necessary, and voices of support are critical on behalf of all who are beleaguered in our country and beyond our borders.

When Queen Esther was reluctant to enter the king’s palace to plead on behalf of our people because she had not been summoned, Mordechai told her, “If you say nothing, relief and deliverance will arrive on our behalf from elsewhere” {Esther 4:14}. That is a remarkable statement of faith: the belief that good people would rise to the occasion, even if she could not or would not do so.

There are people at all times and in all places who stand up to be counted in the name of justice and mercy on behalf of those who are marginalized and victimized anywhere and everywhere.

Headstones, touchstones, memories and dreams. Cemeteries and Kaddish, prayer and hope. Conviction, commitment, caring and community. The words of the prophet, Micah, echo through the ages: “What does God require of you? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly” {Micah 6:8}. We amend it to read not “walk” but “run”: run to protect and defend…run to protest…run to demonstrate what you believe and the values you cherish. Run and do what must be done before we run out of time.

May the words of the prophet, Ezekiel, come true soon and in our days: “I will remove your heart of stone, and give you a heart that feels.” {Ezekiel 36:26}

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin