On Monday, February 20th, I was on the train coming back from NFTY convention in Chicago when my mother notified me about the tragic news: “Vandals target historic Jewish cemetery in University City”. Immediately, my stomach dropped. This cemetery, Chesed Shel Emeth is a 30 second drive from my home and has always stood out to me as a sacred, beautiful, holy piece of land. Since 1893, Jews have been buried at Chesed Shel Emeth, so there is a great amount of history and love concerning family members and friends who have been laid to rest there.
So Tuesday afternoon, immediately after school, my good friend Julian Albright and I decided to take a look at the destruction. Cemeteries are pretty sad in the first place, but that day everything was more gloom and depressing than I could have imagined. There were no reporters, politicians or cameras to distract us from the atrocities of this vandalous act, so we stayed focused on the damage of over 150 headstones.
Toppled over, damaged, and cracked , these headstones provided physical proof that there is hate in this world. We don’t know if these acts had anti-Semitic means, but regardless, it has affected the Jewish community in St. Louis and across America. After about 45 minutes of walking around, getting teary eyed and taking a few pictures on my phone, I left the cemetery that day feeling like a real social minority for the first time. Overall, it was a pretty sad day, but I became hopeful when I saw the amount of money donated for repairs, along with a “cemetery clean up day” the next day.
So for the second day in a row I went to Chesed Shel Emeth after school, but this time when I stepped onto the property there were hundreds of people lined up outside of the gates, with rakes, bags, and buckets in hand. Within seconds, I could already feel the sense of community; I saw familiar faces including family members and friends, but I also got to help clean the cemetery with those I didn’t know. Despite being strangers, there was this connection between everyone at the clean up, and it felt very special. It wasn’t a Jewish connection; it wasn’t a University City connection, it was this “greater good” connection and experience for everyone who attended regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
I ran into a bunch of NFTY friends at the cemetery. It was inspiring to see how many people from our own NFTY community showed up and gave their support. We learn so much in NFTY about social issues as we brainstorm ways to use community organizing to our advantage and take action. This was a perfect example of how we can do it. Seeing so many of my fellow NFTY-ites warmed my heart on a Jewish level as well as a personal level. Seeing young people dedicated to make change and combat anti-Semitism can be stimulating. When we see our role models doing good things and in the world and taking action, we are more inclined to do it as well. In addition, this whole Cemetery experience has been especially important and frankly, weird to me. Chesed Shel Emeth is unbelievably close to my house and relevant to the town I’ve grown up in. And even though I’m not directly connected to this immoral act of vandalism, I do feel very connected to the situation as a citizen of University City, especially as a Jew. And experiencing this love and genuine compassion from all the volunteers who helped clean up the cemetery shined a bright light on a day that was so dark. And this light doesn’t need to stop. The more good we do, the brighter this light will shine.
Despite politicians making headlines showing their support by attending the cemetery clean up, in my eyes the real headline is owed to the everyday people who care enough about an issue to help be part of the solution.
Written by Daniel Pomerantz
NFTY-MV SLIID Membership Vice President
Member of SETYG