‘When does it stop?’ Discussing the recent spate of actions against St. Louis' Jewish community

Feb 23, 2017

While the more than 150 headstones that were toppled and damaged at one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis have all now been righted, waiting only to be resealed, the damage still felt in St. Louis’ Jewish community is palpable. This weekend’s actions have compounded the emotional damage from a recurring spate of national and local threats made against the Jewish community, including a January bomb threat to St. Louis’ own Jewish Community Center.

Such threats against the Jewish community have persisted for a long time, but some fear campaign rhetoric and an emboldening of anti-Semitic sentiment are behind such an uptick.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh led a discussion with local Jewish community leaders about these threats and actions against the Jewish community in St. Louis.

“What we’re starting to see is a building on 18 months to two years of increased rhetoric around people who are targeted in marginalized communities, whether Jewish, Muslim, refugees, broad immigrant communities,” said Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois. “It has an online component, the nastiness online is pretty high, then we start to see from there an increase in school-based events and activities happening in communities and workplace. Add in the rhythm of the bomb threats, which is startling, and then the vandalism. … It is a moving train and the question is ‘when does it stop?’”

Outpouring of support

Lynne Wittels, the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, which received a bomb threat and evacuated last month, said the center was founded by the Jewish community but has prided itself on welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds through its doors.

“We are amazed and quite honestly touched by expressions of support and interest in what has been going on,” Wittels said. “Sometimes bad things have wonderful results. That’s what we’ve found at the J.”

A crowd waits to enter Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery for a volunteer clean-up event.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

As of Thursday afternoon, nearly $120,000 had been raised in a Launchgood crowdfunding campaign started by the Muslim American community, standing solidarity with the Jewish American community. The President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis Andrew Rehfeld said such support has turned something “so dreadful into something positive.”

The Federation itself has raised, as of yesterday, about $80,000 from donors around the world.

“This speaks to interfaith and intercommunity support,” Rehfeld said.

Yesterday, some 2,500 people of many faith persuasions came to Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in University City to help clean up the gravesites. Two high-profile guests also made an appearance at the cleanup: Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, Missouri’s first Jewish governor, and Vice President of the United States Mike Pence.

What needs to happen next?

“We were glad, from our perspective, to see that attention but I know there are those who disagree with me on that one,” Aroesty said. “I think we have been fairly strong in seeking some confirmation from the administration that they were paying attention to the significant increase in antisemitism, so to have the Vice President there to acknowledge that, to use the language, to follow up with what the president said the day before, and be there physically to see it.

“Beyond that? Action is important. It isn’t about words, it is a about what the White House can do in its capacity to develop policy, to work with law enforcement, to provide education and to provide necessary and strong leadership to send the message that any of this, when it is a targeted community, is unacceptable.”

Rehfeld said the Jewish Federation was initially on the phone with Gov. Greitens after the event and extended the invitation to him to come to the cemetery, but it was Greitens that recommended a cleanup.

"You have to name it, condemn it and you have to do something about it."- Andrew Rehfeld

“He mobilized his team to help make volunteer efforts to be meaningful and impactful,” Rehfeld said.

From here, he hopes to see more action.

“There are three ways to respond to this: you have to name it, condemn it and you have to do something about it,” Rehfeld said. “The naming and condemning happened yesterday, we were proud of that, but we have to, now, see something done about it.”

Education about toleration and diversity, mobilization and investment in security and restoration needs are three steps Rehfeld hopes to see come out of these actions. Aroesty spoke about getting uncomfortable in conversations across communities in Missouri, not just where you feel safe. She also hopes to see the Missouri Hate Crimes Statute “lifted up” and improved.

Was this a ‘hate crime?’

Was the act at the cemetery a hate crime?

“My initial reaction was ‘no,’ but I have learned over the last year that I’ve made more wrong decisions about that than I’ve been right, so I don’t want to speculate,” Aroesty said. “There isn’t any evidence out there now, any markers or left-behind hate literature that would tell us something. We have these headstones that while older and more vulnerable weighed 1000 lbs. The physical aspect of gaining entry over the fence and actually doing something had an intentionality behind it that leaves me puzzled.

Visitors walk through Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery Tuesday morning to check on the graves of their loved ones. (Feb. 21, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“These aren’t 10-year-olds and it may be something more intentional and organized over the long term, but sometimes these things are impulsive by people who are thrill-seekers trying to make a public point.”

On Monday, the ADL offered a $10,000 award for information about the perpetrators that would lead to arrest and conviction.

“Our guts are very unreliable sources,” Rehfeld said. “There is a general tendency to map things on to other things that are salient and it is easy to frame this as antisemitism. We need to be cautious. I’ll say something else: at some point, it doesn’t matter. You put the pieces together, the bomb threats on the community, the acts of other threatening things that are not publicly known, and there’s a pattern that has not been here before. It has been ramping up since the fall. We need to be careful and studious about it.”

Listen as Aroesty, Rehfeld and Wittels discuss what’s to be done next, how the threats are impacting the younger generation of Jewish children and more here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.