July 24, 2024
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Hate Crime Hits Small Jewish Community Cemetery

Rabbi Andrew Schultz stands in the daily minyan shul at Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Schenectady, where he serves as a part-time rabbi.
(Credit: Marc Gronich)

For time and immemorial, many Jews have experienced hatred from a wide swath of the global population. Some of these acts of hatred include acts of antisemitism in schools, acts of antisemitism on college campuses or Jews punched in the face for just innocently being on the sidewalk.

Now you can add another category from the beyond: cemetery desecration. Six cemeteries, three of which are dormant, share a plot of land, dedicated for multiple congregations and Jewish communities that have plots in the cemetery. While the synagogues are located in Niskayuna, Schenectady County and Clifton Park, Saratoga County, the cemeteries are all in the town of Rotterdam, Schenectady County.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“In mid-April, on a late-night drinking binge and folly by partiers, for no apparent reason, more than 170 headstones were either overturned or weakened at their base. This action was unprovoked and may have been for no other reason but to cause mischief and damage,” said Rabbi Andrew Schultz, executive director of Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries, based in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. “Initially I was appalled, devastated. Unfortunately, cemeteries have been a target, they have been vulnerable, they continue to be vulnerable so I was able to temper my emotion with a sense of urgency.”

This is an emotional situation for Schultz.

“The land of the cemetery is so valuable and sacred now we have to focus our energies on restoring the tranquility and the sanctity to that land,” Schultz told The Jewish Link. “We can’t take the attitude that we only have to protect the living. The dead are vulnerable. We need to add voice to the voiceless. These are the people who came before us. We’re not just going to hide from this. It’s yet another attack on the Jewish community and we have to put our best foot forward and show the world we will not stand still.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“Sometimes people have a certain apathy or a disinterest in cemeteries until this type of situation happens. Until they go to the cemetery of their loved one and see that it’s been ransacked or to see their loved one or their parents’ or grandparents’ stone toppled.”

The cemeteries included the synagogues of Congregation Beth Israel, Schenectady, Orthodox; Congregation Beth Shalom of Clifton Park, Saratoga County, Conservative; Congregation Agudat Achim, Schenectady, Conservative; and three dormant cemeteries—Adath Israel, the Free Jewish Cemetery, and Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish fraternal order.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“My initial reaction was sadness and I was taken aback. It was just another eye-opener to the realities of the fact that antisemitism is as much in our backyard as it is in Israel and around the world,” Rabbi Amiel Tuvia Monson, rabbi-in-residence at Beth Shalom, told The Jewish Link. “Except for the people who did it, no one knows what their intent was. Without knowing the intent and also knowing the age and circumstance of this happening, I would put it under the category of a hate crime. What makes this a hate crime is that this was specifically in Jewish cemeteries. It wasn’t just a cemetery that had both Jews and non-Jews..”

Whether or not this is a hate crime, it has the small Jewish community shaken.

“I was horrified by the desecration and damage at the cemeteries,” Linda Gellman, president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, said. The police can’t prove it is a hate crime. The number of the toppled stones, some of them 400 to 500 pounds each: If it’s not a hate crime, it was an act of hate. Some people are saying it was teenagers going through there. What purpose does it serve for someone to desecrate a cemetery?”

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

For one leader of the impacted cemeteries, this was not what he expected when he landed after a two-week trip to Israel.

“It was damage that was done to souls who couldn’t respond,” recalled Margo Strosberg, a past president and longtime congregant of Congregation Beth Israel. “I had a lot of sadness that anyone who would do something like this is to be pitied. Is this something that someone does just to look for excitement? For joy? I don’t understand it. Certainly, there are a lot more meaningful things one could do in life to bring highs. It’s terribly depressing. It’s a sad state of affairs.”

Her husband also expressed similar feelings.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“I thought of the victims, the deceased,” said Dr. James Strosberg, a longtime member and past president of Congregation Beth Israel. “It was awful, unbelievable. I thought this is no different than the pogroms. My great-grandmother was in a pogrom. We have to divide this into two ways: restoration of the stones and security. There are some dormant shul cemeteries. I met with the detective from the Rotterdam police. He said he thinks it was teenagers. They found evidence of alcohol, a lot of garbage and evidence of a party. According to neighbors, there were other parties in the cemeteries.”

Rotterdam Police Detective Connor Lee, who is one of the officers handling the case, told The Jewish Link that the state police are aware of the situation. “The matter is being handled as a criminal mischief case, which is a felony hate crime.”

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“We’re working with Pat Regan from the Community Security Initiative, a retired New York state trooper,” Schultz said. “He has also verified that in fact local law enforcement is performing up to capacity and really meeting the expectations in terms of these investigations.”

When The Jewish Link caught up with Governor Kathy Hochul on May 22, she said: “I would certainly say that the community should be helpful, number one. Number two, that vandalism in the pursuit of displaying animosity or hatred toward a protected group constitutes a hate crime and vandalism of taking down gravestones is vandalism that meets that standard, and I want to make sure that’s defined. As you know, we added 28 hate crimes this year. I think that is an act of antisemitism when it occurs intentionally in one cemetery. I’m not saying it’s prima facie but an argument could be made that that would constitute a hate crime and that there should be assistance provided.”

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reacted by simply stating, “It’s disgusting.”

There is legislation pending in the state legislature, sponsored by Senator James Tedisco (R-Schenectady) and Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Borough Park, Brooklyn). The legislation was introduced on May 10, just three weeks before lawmakers left Albany until January 2025. The legislation languished in committee when the lights went out on the session.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

The purpose of the bill, S.9297, would be to include aggravated cemetery desecration in the second degree and first degree as specified offenses for purposes of hate crime. The justification of the amendment to the hate crimes law is that hate crimes laws in New York state are silent on targeted cemetery desecration motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin and sexual orientation.

This measure would add these offenses and elevate aggravated cemetery desecration in the second degree is (currently a Class E felony) to a Class D felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison, and aggravated cemetery desecration in the first degree (currently a Class D felony) to a Class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

It is unclear how much the cemetery repairs will cost except that they will take several months. “We think it’s a project that’s going to cost $40,000 to $45,000 to fix,” Rabbi Rafi Spitzer, the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudat Achim, said. However, Monson said, “I’ve heard an estimate of $75,000 it will take to fix everything.”

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

Bids from cemetery restoration companies are being solicited now.

Spitzer was emotional when the news broke about the vandalism. “I feel a sense of deep anger, violation and sadness that we live in a world that creates the permissive structure for active Jew-hatred like that,” he said. “Ninety stones are down in the cemetery, and these stones are hundreds of pounds. I don’t think you do this lightly. I think it took several people, several nights to get it done. I cried. It’s terrible. It’s somebody’s mother, brother, daughter.”

State lawmakers were just as distraught by this act of vandalism.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this type of destruction of sacred ground. It’s awful, absolutely awful. It’s disrespectful. It’s hurtful to our community,” Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara (D-Rotterdam) said. “We have to do everything we can to stop it. We have to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We have a diverse community. We only support one another. We have to do everything we can to stand against it and to stop it.”

One Jewish member of the Assembly who represents the area of the desecration said he wants to do whatever he can, but no one from the community has approached his office to make a request for funding.

(Credit: Marc Gronich)

“There have been monies allotted for synagogues and JCCs for security. I don’t know if that is extended for cemeteries but certainly the precedent is there,” Assemblyman Phillip Steck told The Jewish Link. “Obviously, there is the issue of getting funding for restoration and/or protection. We have been beefing up laws regarding hate crimes, which this would be, but there is no fool-proof method for stopping antisemitism.”

A state senator who sponsored the legislation was frustrated by the actions at the cemetery.

“Now antisemitism has reached heightened levels where they are not only terrorizing the Jewish faith and Jewish individuals when they are alive but even under death when they are desecrating burial grounds and trying to impact their families in a vicious antisemitic way,” Senator James Tedisco (R-Saratoga Springs), who represents Schenectady, said. “The amended legislation would include turning over a tombstone, putting a swastika on it, painting it, painting graffiti on the stone or language that could be on it. This cannot be accepted, this type of discrimination and antisemitism.”

To make a donation for the cemetery restoration, go to https://cajacnynj.org/donate/

or mail a check to:

Rabbi Andrew Schultz

Executive Director

Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries

368 Owen Avenue

Fair Lawn, NJ 07410

The check should indicate “Rotterdam Cemetery Restoration.”

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