PHILADELPHIA — Responding to the destruction of some 100
gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Feb. 27 deplored the "senseless acts of mass vandalism."
The gravestones were discovered toppled over from their bases the
previous morning at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.
The archbishop issued a statement in which he called on the
clergy, religious and laypeople of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia "to
join in prayerful solidarity with the families of those whose final resting
places have been disturbed. Violence and hate against anyone, simply because of
who they are, is inexcusable."
The incident at Mount Carmel Cemetery mirrors gravestones
destroyed at another Jewish cemetery near St. Louis about a week before.
In a statement Feb. 24, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee
on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, expressed solidarity and support for
the Jewish community and also called for the rejection of such hateful actions.
"I want to express our deep sympathy, solidarity, and
support to our Jewish brothers and sisters who have experienced once again a
surge of anti-Semitic actions in the United States," said Bishop Mitchell
T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, speaking on behalf of all the
bishops and U.S. Catholics. "I wish to offer our deepest concern, as well
as our unequivocal rejection of these hateful actions. The Catholic Church
stands in love with the Jewish community in the current face of
Two days earlier, the National Council of Churches in a statement
said that "anti-Semitism has no place in our society. Eradicating it
requires keeping constant vigil."
In his statement, Archbishop Chaput said that "for
Catholics, anti-Semitism is more than a human rights concern. It's viewed as a
form of sacrilege and blasphemy against God's chosen people. In recent weeks,
our country has seen a new wave of anti-Semitism on the rise. It's wrong and it
should deeply concern not only Jews and Catholics, but all people."
Even as the archbishop issued his statement, a new wave of fear
spread for Jewish people in the United States as about a dozen Jewish community
centers across the country received anonymous threats of violence.
Several centers in the Philadelphia region — including the
Kaiserman Jewish Community Center, which includes a preschool, in the
Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood — had been evacuated the morning of Feb. 27
because of bomb threats, local media reported. By the afternoon, the facility
along with others in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware had reopened.
Scores of other such threats have been received by Jewish
community centers in recent weeks across the country.
"As a community, we must speak out to condemn inflammatory
messages and actions that serve only to divide, stigmatize and incite
prejudice," Archbishop Chaput said. "We must continually and loudly
reject attempts to alienate and persecute the members of any religious
"Rather, as members of diverse faith and ethnic communities
throughout the region, we must stand up for one another and improve the quality
of life for everyone by building bridges of trust and understanding."
The heads of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater
Philadelphia met the afternoon of Feb. 27 at the Lutheran Theological Seminary
in Philadelphia to discuss the situation. Msgr. Daniel Kutys, moderator of the
curia for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, represented Archbishop Chaput at the
The archbishop, who is a co-convener of the more than 30-member
religious leadership council, was unable to attend the meeting.
In St. Louis, an interfaith cleanup effort of the vandalized
cemetery took place Feb 22 followed by an interfaith prayer service. Vandals
toppled more than two-dozen gravestones and damaged an estimated 200 more at
the historic Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, which dates to 1893.
Represented by seminarians, priests, deacons, students and laity,
Catholic St. Louisans stood with Jewish brethren at the cemetery in University
They were among about 1,000 people who helped with cleanup,
including Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitans. When he
came unannounced to help rake leaves, Pence was wearing work clothes, as he had
come from another event.
"There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice, or acts
of violence or anti-Semitism," he said later. "I must tell you that
the people of Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this
place and the Jewish community. I want to thank you for that inspiration. For
showing the world what America is all about."
Greitens, who came ready to work in jeans, boots and a work
shirt, described the vandalism as "a despicable act ... anti-Semitic and
painful. Moments like this are what a community is about. ... We're going to
demonstrate that this is a moment of revolve. We're coming together to share
Seminarians were among those who answered St. Louis Archbishop
Robert J. Carlson's call Feb. 21 "to help our Jewish brothers and
sisters." About a dozen used their afternoon free time to help out.
"This is neat to see," said seminarian Cole Bestgen,
watching the workers fan out on a sunny and unseasonably warm 67-degree day
armed with rakes, trash barrels and buckets. Though toppled headstones already
had been replaced, the volunteers took care of general cleanup and maintenance.
The desecration sparked outrage from numerous ecumenical groups —
Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Muslims and more — and dignitaries across the
country, including President Donald J. Trump, who sent messages of thanks
through Pence and Greitens.
Gambino is director and general manager of
CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Contributing to this story was Dave Luecking in St. Louis.