Jewish Pennsylvania lawmaker hopes cemetery vandalism will unite community

Philadelphia Muslims decry attack and pitch in to help clean up.

Gravestones damaged at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , US (photo credit: screenshot)
Gravestones damaged at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , US
(photo credit: screenshot)
The Jewish state representative for Pennsylvania’s 202nd congressional district, where the defaced Mount Carmel Cemetery is located, hopes the horror of Sunday’s vandalism will only serve to strengthen the community.
“I have the most diverse district in whole state,” Jared Solomon told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, noting that 30% is African American, 20% Latin American, and 12% Asian, with a quarter of the district’s population being foreign born.
Just the day before some 100 headstones were found toppled at the Jewish cemetery, a legislative summit was held in the district, focusing on ways to harness the community’s diversity.
“We had 100 people providing comments, questions and feedback around that issue and the response was tremendous – people who wanted to find ways to not only tolerate the diversity we have but to embrace it and really to build a strong community through our diversity,” he said.
“The next day we had this horrific event, but I hope – and the whole community hopes – that this is simply a way to unify us, make us stronger and redouble efforts to embrace diversity...
and ensure acts like this are not tolerated,” he emphasized.
The police, Solomon said, are working to identify and apprehend suspects. He notes that while the cemetery itself does not have surveillance cameras, there is a nearby apartment building which the perpetrators likely used to exit, whose cameras police and perusing in hope of identifying them.
“And of course we are encouraging anyone who has any information or the perpetrators themselves to step forward,” he adds.
In addition, the Anti-Defamation league (ADL) is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the desecration, an award made possible by the support of the Mizel Family Foundation.
“We are horrified by the desecration at Mount Carmel Cemetery,” said Nancy K.
Baron-Baer, regional director.
“This act is cowardly and unconscionable, and is all the more despicable coming on the heels of a similar vandalism at another Jewish cemetery in St. Louis last week. We urge anyone with information on this crime to report it immediately to the Philadelphia Police Department at 215-686-TIPS.
“We stand with the Jewish community and all decent Philadelphians in condemning this crime, and we are inspired by the outpouring of support from law enforcement, community leaders and neighbors,” she added. “We all must band together in the face of senseless crimes like the vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery.”
Some in Philly’s Muslim community also joined the cleaning efforts and condemned the vandalism in Jewish cemeteries across the US over the last week.
The local chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA has deployed a team of about a dozen people to help tend to the damage caused at Mount Carmel.
“When an incident like this happens, we want to make sure that we let the community under attack know that we are there for them,” a spokesman for the organization Qasim Rashid told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “This is a very tragic but unfortunately not a unique incident in recent American history.
“We felt compelled to make sure that our Jewish sisters and brothers knew that we stand with them against these attacks,” he added. “This is our obligation as neighbors, as Muslims, and as Americans.”
Within hours of the announcement that the cemetery had been vandalized, Muslims came to Mount Carmel to help repair the damage. Pictures of the collaboration were posted on Twitter on Sunday.
The Ahmadiyya community’s local chapter with the Philly Mosque returned on Monday to continue assisting the efforts. According to those on the ground however, because the cemetery is still considered an active crime scene under investigation, they were told on Monday that they cannot clean much of the litter on the ground, and are now there mainly to show support.
Rashid explained that ties between Jews and Muslims are anchored in the Quran, and their collaboration should therefore come naturally.
“The silver lining I take from these kinds of horrible attacks on the cemeteries is that it becomes an opportunity to remind people that our alliance and our unity isn’t just some 21st century photo op.
It’s something that goes back thousands of years and we should celebrate that,” he told the Post.
One of the Muslims who joined the effort, 30-year-old Niaz Butt, who also heads the Ahmadiyya community’s youth program, explained that for him, coming to help at the Jewish cemetery wasn’t even a question.
“I felt pretty sick to my stomach that somebody would do this: go to somebody’s graveyard and knock over tombstones.
It could have been my grandparent’s tombstones,” he said. “So personally I felt that I wanted to go and show support and help if I could but I think that that stems from an upbringing of supporting all religions.”
“Islam teaches us that there is a living God and that Islam is the way to communicate with that living God and I feel like I have a relationship with God,” he added. “Doing something like this is something that I feel is almost an obligation.
I mean, it’s only 15 minutes from our mosque. If I didn’t do it it would be like I’m risking my own relationship with God. That’s not something I’m willing to lose."