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Graves vandalized, flags burned in Jewish cemetery

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Though you can't kill the already dead, it looked like a massacre yesterday in McKees Rocks, where nearly 100 gravestones were wrenched from their bases and smashed onto walkways or pushed down the steep slopes of the Beth Hamedrish Hagadol-Beth Jacob Congregation cemetery.

"This really hits me," says monument maker Stan Faleder, after seeing the damage to the Jewish cemetery in McKees Rocks. "I have a great grandmother and grandmother buried here." (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

The vandals, who acted late Monday or early Tuesday, also pulled a dozen flags off veterans' graves and burned them in a pile at the top of the hill.

The FBI is investigating, said spokesman Bill Crowley yesterday. Agents will submit a preliminary report to the U.S. Justice Department within two weeks and expect to get clearance to do a full civil rights investigation, Crowley said.

McKees Rocks police are investigating, said Chief Robert Martineau, and will be assisted by Allegheny County Police. Police said they had no leads or suspects yesterday.

Though cemetery vandalism is not uncommon, many in and out of the Jewish community were rocked by the scale of the damage. The United Jewish Federation sent out an alert to synagogues and Jewish organizations in the area, urging them to be vigilant.

"It's enormous -- in other cases of cemetery vandalism it's one or two tombstones," said Bettysue Feuer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "These are not kids, this is very deliberate, and it's something very serious and very ugly."

The flag-burning was a disturbing new element, she said.

"That's a part that we don't really understand. We never understand anti-Semitism and hate, but this new piece is very disturbing to our community, as if it's accusing our community of something and we don't know what."

Beth Hamedrish Hagadol-Beth Jacob Congregation is a 128-year-old Orthodox synagogue in the Hill District. It has about 75 members and has been burying its dead in the McKees Rocks graveyard for more than a century. There are about 5,000 graves there. The synagogue's president, Ira Frank, learned of the vandalism Tuesday from the caretakers, Robert and Jeanne McKivitz.

Frank told them to call police and notify the FBI, and said he'd come out later in the day. He had just been there for a funeral Sunday.

"Quite honestly, I figured it was one or two stones. It wasn't until I went out that I realized the gravity of what was done."

The McKivitzs have been caretakers at the cemetery, located at the edge of McKees Rocks near Stowe, for 11 years. They live with their two daughters in a brick house at the base of a hill near the cemetery entrance. Many of the graves date from the late 19th century, and rise in rows along the steep, uneven slopes of the burial ground.

"I love it here. It's quiet. Nobody bothers you," said McKivitz.

He walked the cemetery between 11:30 p.m. and midnight Monday as he does every night, he said. Nothing was amiss.

He discovered the damage Tuesday morning.

"I happened to look down and saw those two stones," he said, pointing straight out from his house. "I walked up the sidewalk and saw a whole bunch knocked down." Parts of the new walk he'd put in recently were damaged by the half-ton stones crashing down on them.

"Then I hit the other side of the hill, and I couldn't believe it. It was just so massive. They just went row by row." At the top of the hill in a small open area, a pile of charred sticks marks the spot where the dozen flags that had recently been placed on graves were burned. Stone benches had been torn apart and thrown on graves. Stars of David atop several gravestones had been chipped or broken off. One star is missing. Headstones had been toppled onto other graves.

McKivitz said he and his family didn't hear anything that night.

"Once in a while we get kids in here drinking. I know 'em all -- they all know my daughters." He tells them to move on out.

"They say, 'OK, Mr. McKivitz.' And I say, 'Take your cans with you.'"

He's never had vandalism.

The synagogue's Rabbi Stanley J. Savage has not yet gone out to see the damage. "I had a funeral on Sunday; that's what's frightening," he said. He, too, said he recalls no problems with vandalism -- "Nothing of this magnitude, my lord no."

Frank, the synagogue president, said he was checking to find out whether the congregation's insurance will cover the damage.

Stan Faleder of Faleder Monuments, Uptown, was at the cemetery yesterday to assess the damage.

"This really hits me," he said as he came down the hill after surveying the damage. He has relatives buried there.

"The vandalism is so bad. They do everything -- but not like this. They break a letter, spray-paint a stone. I've never encountered anything so massive."

Faleder said he could not give even a rough estimate on how much it would cost to repair the damage before coming back with a foreman and going through the cemetery stone by stone. Some need only to be set back on their bases; others need to be repaired; and a number will have to be replaced. Since stones cost more than $1,000 and extensive labor will be required, it will clearly be thousands of dollars' worth of work.

Though Frank said the one kind of damage not done at the cemetery was graffiti, that absence added to the void about the intent of the attackers. What was the message of attacking both Jewish graves and American flags?

"I don't know what they're trying to point at," said Feuer of the Anti-Defamation League. "I've asked my colleagues across the country whether they've seen anything like this. I haven't heard of anything like this.

Feuer said there didn't seem to have been any increase in anti-Semitic vandalism since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., but that Jewish organizations are continuing to be cautioned.

"They are responding in a very serious way to security issues, not unlike any other American at the moment."

After Faleder left the cemetery, McKivitz walked a bit more among the stones.

He pointed to a stone that lay face-down. "These people come out to see this grave," he said.

Down along the side of the hill, a small stone has been shoved from its base, the worn inscription "Birdie/Beloved Child/1897-1901."

"I don't know how anybody can do this. The poor people are dead. Let them rest in peace."

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