Police continue investigation of Jewish cemetery vandalism, but there are still no suspects
Executive director Anita Feigenbaum is standing in the rain, amid repaired headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth, the historic Jewish cemetery in University City that made international headlines last February after vandals knocked over 154 grave markers.
“Starting here, you would just see rows knocked down,’’ Feigenbaum said, pointing from beneath her umbrella. “There’s an example of a monument that was totally knocked down. And broken.”
Most of the headstones were fixed within days — the sanctuary restored, as the world watched. Two months later, 16 stones await replacement because they were broken beyond repair.
But the major questions remain unanswered: Who did this, and why?
A spokesman for the University City Police Department said Monday that the investigation remains open, but there are still no suspects. The Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information.
Feigenbaum says the vandalism was criminal, but she is careful not to label it a hate crime, unless police find evidence.
“It was a complete disregard for history and family,'' she said. "Everybody has family who have passed away. Everyone. It’s just callous and inconsiderate. What was the motivation? Nobody knows yet.”
The repaired gravestones are difficult to pick out from the 22,000 monuments that mark graves in the cemetery. Unless you know to look for the little stones painted with ladybugs and hearts that now rest atop them.
“This little girl in Florida — her grandmother is buried here. And she felt that she had to do something,’’ Feigenbaum said. “So she sent us ladybugs and hearts. Because ladybugs are for luck. And hearts are for love. There needs to be a lot more love in the world.”
Feigenbaum said the outpouring of support after the vandalism has been heartwarming, and it has overshadowed the crime.
“I think if the intention and motivation was nefarious, then what they got out of it was not what they wanted,’’ she said. “Because it brought together communities and unity that far exceeded anybody’s expectations.”
Still waiting for answers
The cemetery has returned to its routine, but with increased security, according to Feigenbaum.
On a recent rain-drenched morning, there were few visitors. Unlike the days after the vandalism when hundreds of worried people came to check on the graves of their loved ones. And hundreds more turned out for an interfaith vigil and to hear Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Eric Greitens denounce the crime.
The vandalism came amid a torrent of bomb threats to Jewish schools and community centers across the nation.
According to the national Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose 86 percent during the first quarter of this year.
Karen Aroesty, the organization’s regional director, says that it’s important to avoid speculation about the motive behind the vandalism, but there’s no denying how people felt about the crime.
“Maybe we don’t know the intent of the people who chose Chesed Shel Emeth, but we know the impact,’’ she said. “And you can say that the intent might not have been anti-Semitism, but the impact sure feels like it.”
The story has been further complicated by the arrests of a St. Louis man who police say made bomb threats to frame his girlfriend and of an Israeli-American teenager in Israel who made threats to Jewish institutions in the U.S.
“And that makes you shake your head,’’ Aroesty said. “And that’s why, in part, I specifically hold off on saying I know what happened at the cemetery. Or, I’m going to speculate about what happened.’’
Aroesty was at the cemetery the morning the vandalism was discovered. She watched the story take off on social media, after a news station tweeted an aerial photo of the vandalism. She says social media intensified the impact and the anxiety.
“I think we’re finding out about things faster — because there are more ways to find out about them,'' she said. "And I think there are more incidents. I think that the atmosphere of the last few years, particularly with the political rhetoric, has given people permission to be mean.’’
She said it’s difficult waiting for answers in such a highly-charged case.
“If things happen immediately we want to see resolution immediately, too, and that still hasn’t happened,’’ she said. “And I think that’s really hard for a lot of folks.”
Aroesty said the response to the crisis by the interfaith community of St. Louis was positive, but there is long-term work to be done.
“Do we have something we can learn uniquely from this? I don’t know,’’ she said. “I think broadly we just have to figure out all the different structures that will help people understand that treating somebody as ‘the other’ doesn’t get us anywhere.’’
Reconnecting with history
Chesed Shel Emeth, which is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, was founded 124 years ago by Russian immigrants.
Feigenbaum said the publicity after the vandalism was a double-edged sword. The media barrage was difficult, but it served to get the word out to families in far-flung places who needed to be told about the damage. The cemetery staff fielded more than 3,000 calls and emails.
“It helped families reconnect with their history,’’ she said. “It also helped us to find families, generations later, who have more of a connection to St. Louis than they knew.’’
Feigenbaum said it was a doubly difficult time for her, because she was also dealing with the death of her father, a Holocaust survivor who served in the U.S. military in the Korean War.
“My father had just passed away two weeks prior, and I was sobbing as I was walking through, counting how many stones were down,’’ she said.
In the weeks since the vandalism, Feigenbaum says she’s spoken to many high school and college students about the incident.
“What I would like everyone to take away from this event is that educating ourselves about different peoples can only have positive effects and can create more unity and understanding,’’ she said. “Ignorance is what leads to hate. And hate leads to disastrous events.’’
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard