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Students volunteer to clean vandalized Philly cemetery

Hillel at Temple University organized a trip to Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Police responded to a report of vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery in West Philadelphia last week after a total of 460 headstones were toppled and defaced, according to reports by NBC 10.

The next day, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia issued a request for financial assistance and volunteer help. Members of Hillel at Temple University responded, reaching out to members of the student body.

“We got in touch and asked for a time slot [to volunteer],” said Max Buchdahl, the president of Hillel at Temple.

Buchdahl said the group was able to bring 15 students to volunteer to help maintain the cemetery.

“We weren’t able to actually clean the stones,” he said. “That’s the work of trained stone masons, so a lot of what we did was cleaning up some of the trash around the cemetery.”

In the week before, several other Jewish cemeteries were vandalized around the country. Mount Carmel Cemetery is the first in the Philadelphia area to be vandalized.

And the day after the incident at Mount Carmel, several Jewish community centers were called with bomb threats, the New York Times reported. The incidents drew a response from several local politicians and the Anti-Defamation League.

Among the 15 students who volunteered was Student Body President Aron Cowen.

“We felt it was important to show solidarity,” he said. “That kind of hate just isn’t tolerated.”

Students who weren’t previously involved in Hillel at Temple also expressed interest in volunteering in the cleanup efforts, he added. Volunteers were split into groups of two or three and were tasked with mapping the fallen headstones, as well as helping with general maintenance of the grounds, Buchdahl said.

Masons will begin repairs on the headstones over the next few months, he added.

Prior to the cleanup efforts, Hillel at Temple held a meeting where students were encouraged to come and share their feelings about the vandalism.

“A lot of people, I think, were shocked by the sheer effort that went into doing this,” Buchdahl said. “This wasn’t just some people who went in the middle of the night and kicked stones.”

“This was some serious effort with serious equipment,” he added. “They could’ve been sitting on their couch watching TV, but they put hours of effort and manpower into this destruction. A lot of people commented on that because when you’re there you get a sense of the kind of effort that had to be put in to do what they did.”

The restoration efforts were put on hold on March 2 as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia organized a Stand Against Hate rally on Independence Mall. Politicians including Gov. Tom Wolf and Jewish leaders attended, as did Buchdahl and some members of Hillel at Temple.

“It’s important for us to hold onto this feeling and remember how terrible we feel,” Buchdahl said. “More likely than not, other communities will be feeling what we’ll be feeling in the coming months and years and we have to remember how we feel now to help better serve those communities in the future.”

There is a $69,000 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people behind the vandalism of Mount Carmel cemetery.

Amanda Lien can be reached at amanda.lien@temple.edu or on Twitter @amandajlien.

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