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For some families, pain at finding vandalized headstones at University City cemetery

For some families, pain at finding vandalized headstones at University City cemetery

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Updated at 7:25 p.m. with details about fund-raising efforts from Muslim groups.

UNIVERSITY CITY • As many as 200 headstones at a Jewish cemetery were toppled over the weekend here in a case that is making national headlines.

Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, said officials will be cataloging the damage Tuesday and notifying relatives whose families are affected. A monument company will decide which headstones need to be replaced and which need to be reset, she said.

Feigenbaum was emotional in describing the damage she saw.

"It's hard to even express how terrible it was," she said Tuesday morning. "It was horrible."

Among those helping raise money for repairs was Brooklyn-based social justice activist Linda Sarsour, who started the fundraising campaign Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery. In about a day the online campaign raised more than $25,000, well above its original $20,000 goal.

The Imam Council of Metropolitan St. Louis, which represents 18 Islamic centers in the region, expressed condolences and said it planned to encourage Muslim congregations to donate to help with cemetery repairs.

Police are investigating the vandalism, which happened sometime over the weekend. No arrests had been made, as of Tuesday. Asked whether the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, Detective Lt. Fredrick Lemons II said police were keeping all options open.

Lemons said detectives are reviewing a weekend's worth of video, so it will take more time to complete.  He wouldn't say if they've found anything on tape so far that looks suspicious. He also said he couldn't yet narrow down the time it happened.

 "There's nothing to indicate it was any type of hate crime," he said.

 The police force has increased patrols. "We want our citizens — Jewish and non-Jewish — to feel comfortable," he said.

Lemons said police were notified of the vandalism at about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Investigators are looking for clues from video surveillance cameras on the cemetery property and nearby businesses.

Anyone with information is asked to call University City police at 314-725-2211, extension 8010, or CrimeStoppers at 866-371-8477.

According to its website, the cemetery at Hanley Road and Olive Boulevard dates to 1893.

The damage was done to an older part of the cemetery, on the southeast end. In one swath, for example, spread across about 40 yards, two dozen stones are toppled but 10 rows of stones nearby are untouched. A semicircle of destruction included stones marked with names of Schaefer, Weisman, Weinstein, Pearl and Levinson, but one headstone in the middle, with the name Levy, was unscathed. The years of death on these stones ranged from about 1921 to 1962.

Visitors streamed in to see if their family stones were pushed over.

Judy Sipkin of Creve Coeur heard about it from her daughter in Dallas, who saw it on Facebook. Sipkin and her sister, Marla Levinson, rushed out to survey the damage.

The headstones of their parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles were all fine. Levinson snapped a photo of one toppled stone - Rubenstein, her mother-in-law's name - and was sending it to her husband to see if it matched his side of the family.

"It's unbelievably disrespectful, just a shame," she said. "Nobody's saying it's a hate crime, but it certainly wasn't love or a compassionate situation."

 The sisters said they hoped the vandalism was a juvenile prank.  

"Let's hope it was children who don't know better," Levinson said, "instead of a white supremacist group. That's a whole different ballgame."

Even Andy Cohen, the host of "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen" on Bravo, decried the vandalism in his hometown. He said his great-grandparents and many other of his relatives are buried there. 

A detective was knocking on doors Tuesday on a street that runs along the back of the cemetery. One row of destruction appeared to lead straight for the backyard of one home police visited.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said seeing the damaged headstones was "horrific."

She said she didn’t know if the headstones had been damaged as an act of hatred but questioned motives that would lead to the act.

The league tweeted Monday, “Have not seen desecration like this in region. Will work with law enforcement and community to support. Thanks for the solidarity and support.”

The incident was discovered the same day several Jewish community centers around the country received bomb threats, according to the Jewish Community Center Association.

Aroesty said she believes the anxiety that some people may feel over those threats only worsens with incidents such as the vandalism at the cemetery.

People in the St. Louis area have asked Aroesty via tweets and emails how they can help the cemetery, she said. The league intends to work with the community and police to address what happened.

Gov. Eric Greitens denounced the vandalism as a "despicable act" in a post late Monday on his Facebook page.

"Anyone who would seek to divide us through an act of desecration will find instead that they unite us in shared determination," he said. "From their pitiful act of ugliness, we can emerge even more powerful in our faith." He also tweeted on Tuesday that he would visit the cemetery Wednesday afternoon to help with the cleanup. 

 In Jefferson City Tuesday, Rep. Stacey Newman,  D-Clayton, called on her colleagues in the House to stand for a moment of silence to recognize what she called an “act of hatred.”

Newman, who has family members buried in the cemetery, stood with Rep. Joe Adams, a University City Democrat whose district includes the cemetery.

“This desecration has devastated the whole St. Louis community,” Newman said. “The grief and the sadness of this act is overwhelming. Completely overwhelming."

A Lutheran church, All Nations Church, was among those trying to raise money for the cleanup. Its pastor, Chris Paavola, said of the vandalism: "This is just intolerable. It's a hateful act."

Feigenbaum busily fielded calls Tuesday. It was "tremendous outpouring of support," both from people wanting to donate money and others volunteering to help clean up, she said.

The weight of the stones might leave the actual cleanup to the professionals, she said, and she is waiting for an estimate on how expensive it will be to reset or replace the stones.

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