Jewish gravestones vandalized in New Jersey

499 gravestones vandalized in a New Brunswick Jewish cemetery, 4 teenage suspects arrested.

graves 88 (photo credit: )
graves 88
(photo credit: )
Four teenagers were arrested on Thursday in connection with the vandalism of 499 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in New Brunswick, New Jersey, discovered earlier this week. Investigators said three youths entered the Poile Zedek Cemetery during the evening of January 1, and damaged an estimated 17 headstones. The same people and another juvenile returned on January 4, and knocked over nearly 500 gravestones, police said. Approximately three-quarters of the cemetery's memorial stones were toppled. The investigation is ongoing, authorities have been reluctant to charge the suspects with committing a hate crime, or to label the affair a bias incident. The group has been charged with "juvenile delinquency" for crimes that include "desecration of venerated objects" and "criminal mischief." "The facts as presently known do not indicate that the damage caused was an attempt to intimidate, target or harm the Jewish community," the Middlesex County Prosecutor's office said in a statement Thursday. Without swastikas or other hate crime graffiti, convicting the suspects of a hate crime could be difficult, knowledgeable sources said. The main damage was discovered on Sunday morning, when an undertaker from Crabiel Parkwest Funeral Chapel arrived at the cemetery to prepare for a burial. Later that day, members of Congregation Etz Ahaim of Highland Park, which shares the cemetery with Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick, buried one of their founding members, Lawrence Nahama. "The parties had to bury the individual with broken graves all around them," said Rabbi Abraham Mykoff of Congregation Poile Zedek. "The individuals whose family are there, were terribly shocked." Some wanted to leave the desecrated graves as a zecher (testimony), said Mykoff, who has been the rabbi at the 100-year-old-plus Poile Zedek synagogue for 25 years. A special fund is being spearheaded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County to help restore the damage. A few days after the vandalism occurred, Debra Wachspress, whose father and grandparents are buried in Poile Zedek, logged onto the Internet to find the desecrated cemetery as the lead story in a local paper. "I felt like somebody took a boot and stuck it into my stomach," Wachspress said. She made the 45-minute drive from her home in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to see the damage for herself. All her relatives' memorial stones had been knocked over. "They weren't broken, which would have been extra salt to the wound," said Wachspress, whose family has deep roots in this area. Her grandfather immigrated to New Jersey from Russia in the early 20th century, and sent for his wife and daughter shortly thereafter. "As a child, we would go to [Congregation] Poile Zedek over the High Holidays even though it was Orthodox, and we weren't, because we wanted to keep the tradition of our grandparents," said Wachspress. Some of the memorials weighed more than 1,3OO kilos. Many were toppled in a way that hid their inscriptions, and this week, families were trying to identify their relatives' graves. "It is a very personal affront when something like that happens," said Wachspress. I can't believe "that the local police department doesn't consider this a hate crime. I don't know what the law says, but that level of desecration constitutes a very hateful act." "People fled Russia to escape all sorts of persecution to come to the great land of America, and this is a bitter pill. It reminds you that there is hate everywhere. I am very sobered by all this."