BY MAHARAT RORI RICKER NEISS, Executive Director of the St. Louis JCRC
As it seems that cemetery vandalism is becoming more of our new normal, I wanted to take a few moments to share with you some of what we did in St. Louis and some of the key lessons I learned.
General Reflections/Important Information
- Everyone wants to take picture of the toppled headstones because it is powerful and evocative imagery. Families who have loved ones buried in the cemetery will immediately react to the news and be scared that their own families have somehow been violated. You do not want those people to first learn the news by seeing their own last name/family name on a broken tombstone in a photo or video. At the same time, posting those names in any way subjects those individuals to publicity and access from white nationalists or others who may want to desecrate their names further. We tried as hard as we could to keep the names private. We announced that for security reasons we would not be sharing the names publicly and worked with the cemetery to create a mechanism for people to check on family members. We asked people as much as possible not to share the names publicly.
- People will show up fast. Especially as the news has spread and they have heard this already and have seen people show up in other cities, people’s first reactions are to just show up. In the first day(s), this is often more harmful than helpful. They share pictures, as stated above. They can do more damage to the site and interfere with investigations. They add to people’s panic instead of alleviating it.
To that end, I want to share some things that we did in particular and some suggestions:
- Get there fast and control the message. Cemetery directors are not trained for this. Federation heads may not be trained for this. This is the space for JCRCs to step in to coordinate. We said quickly that ADL was going to coordinate with police on the investigation, Federation was going to assess needs and coordinate necessary resources, JCRC was going to convene the community and coordinate the response.
- Necessary resources from Federation: Funds for repairs (set up a campaign and a weblink as soon as possible), staff (Federation staff or volunteers, but someone needs to be on hand to coordinate volunteers) to help answer phones at the cemetery, help people find graves, and other work as the cemetery will be inundated with calls and people. Especially press.
- The message should be a message of hope and growth, not of fear and panic. As messages of support came in we immediately shared each one through emails and social media. We emphasized the response of the masses of the community instead of the destruction of a few individuals. It was about the unity of our region not the fear and divisiveness that these attacks cause.
- Reach out to the rabbis early. People at all walks of religious life turn to rabbis and religion when it comes to death. They will turn to the rabbis in this moment, too. At the same time, the rabbis are often the ones showing up quickly and trying to convene the communities, but not thinking through the ramifications of their words and actions. As soon as we heard the news and got our heads together, I emailed all of the rabbis in the community and announced a conference call for the following day to talk through next steps, making clear that we were on it and we would be working together. When we had the call, I had an idea that we would be doing a gathering but asked the rabbis what it should look like and had them take the lead in planning it so they felt useful and involved in the process and also encouraged their congregants to attend our gathering.
- Work with politicians and interfaith leaders. The community needs to know that it has wider support in these moments, not just the leadership of the Jewish community. These have yielded such massive responses that I think every instance has had the Governor speaking out pretty quickly. Invite them to join any gathering. We had the mayor, congressman, governor, and vice-president (I don’t necessarily recommend the latter).
- Be mindful not to make it a political gathering. This is a moment of pain and of hope, not of blaming politicians and rhetoric. We took heat for having a republican governor come when the “republicans are responsible for the rise in hate speech.” Most of the community, though, felt supported in seeing leadership stepping up. But we made sure that the speeches did not reference political affiliations or policies, just responded to what was happening in the moment.
- Convene a gathering. Whether or not anyone can be helpful at the cemetery itself, people will want to show up somewhere and do something. In St. Louis, we convened a clean up not to pick up the tombstones— which we were told we were not allowed to do— but to clean up the rest of the cemetery to allow the staff of the cemetery to focus on the destruction. We just sent an email to everyone announcing a date and time and told them to bring their own gloves, garbage bags, rakes, rags, and non-bleach cleaning solution. People scrubbed headstones, raked leaves, picked up trash, pulled weeds. We had them do that for a set amount of time— we started about an hour before the cemetery closed— and then we gathered everyone at the end for a short interfaith vigil. We invited politicians to speak, interfaith leaders to reflect (it was controversial for us to ask them to “pray” because some felt that non-Jewish prayers in a Jewish cemetery would be a further violation), and then the rabbis created a ceremony they felt was appropriate with the reading of an alternative prayer, Psalm 23, and then a kaddish. We printed out texts so everyone was able to join together. If you can’t go to the cemetery or it is too complicated, a rally in a central alternative spot also works. People want to feel that they are reacting.
- Do not wait until the most convenient date. People will start showing up immediately. You need to announce the gathering immediately. Our destruction was discovered and shared late Monday afternoon and we had 2,500 people at 3pm that Wednesday. At first we talked about waiting until Sunday. Had we done that, we would have been irrelevant and 8 other individual gatherings would have taken place. As it was, individuals coordinated a candlelit vigil on Tuesday night just via Facebook and got a nice turnout. But luckily our event was announced before then so people knew that there was an organized response as well.
- To the specifics of the clean-up, you need people on the ground coordinating. People will show up with supplies. We had a space where people could check in and get stickers and then the stickers indicated the quadrant where they worked. That helped to give people some direction and keep things organized.
- Coordinate with local police re closing off streets, crowd control, parking, and making sure they just know it is happening. Especially if there are politicians. We also hired extra security for the event. Last thing we need is someone causing trouble because they saw it on TV.
- Invite the press to the gathering. Make sure the story they tell is of the response and of the hope. My proudest moment was when one anchor in his newscast said, “It is hard to believe that two days ago we were sharing a story of destruction when tonight we have such a story of hope.”
- My regret: not hiring our own photographer. We have some good photos, but it isn’t the same. I would suggest making sure you have someone there who can record the moment for your own records.
- I don’t know that this is possible, but what worked especially well for us is that the tombstones were all righted before we started the clean up (with the exception of 16 that needed repair which were removed for repairs). I have heard in both St. Louis and Philadelphia of local tombstone companies offering to help for free. To the extent that it is possible, and based on the extent of the damage, it is wonderful if people can already come not seeing the destruction. The companies have the machines and manpower to lift the heavy stone and they were able to live all 154 tombstones that were not damaged within two days.
- Tell the story of the response. Tomorrow we will be recording a radio spot for three stations and placing full-page ads in a number of papers sharing those photos and thanking the community for standing together with the Jewish community in our time of need. We are putting it into the local Jewish paper, the main newspaper, the independent paper that reaches the younger audience, the Catholic paper, and the African American paper.