At Elesavetgrad Cemetery in Southeast Washington’s Congress Heights neighborhood, the only barrier stopping a vandal from wreaking havoc is an 8-foot-high chain-link fence surrounding the 2.6-acre property and a gate that is locked at night.
“I’ve been down there when it’s dark. You can’t see very far, so [vandals] could do whatever,” said cemetery superintendent Paul Kress. “They could drive through it.”
Jewish cemeteries have suddenly become targets for attacks. Last month, headstones were overturned in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. During the same period, more than 100 bomb threats were made to Jewish institutions across the United States. With most of the attacks still under investigation, cemeteries seem particularly vulnerable.
Kress said there has never been an act of vandalism at his 105-year old cemetery. But after hearing about the desecrated cemeteries, he said he’s worried — though not to the point of losing sleep because there is “nothing I can do to prevent anything like that.”
He said that “it’s discouraging to hear that, because anybody could come at any time to mess with it, and all you’re doing is desecrating sacred land.”
Elesavetgrad has 98 rows of stones from six Washington-area synagogues. It sits adjacent to the cemeteries of three other congregations: Washington Hebrew Congregation, Adas Israel Congregation and Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue.
Kress said many families from those synagogues are electing to bury their loved ones in suburban cemeteries such as King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church and Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park in Clarksburg due to a perception that the neighborhood is unsafe.
“If something bad happens in Southeast, it’s not where in Southeast, it’s just Southeast,” he said. “Right away you get a cringe down there. But there are killings everywhere.”
On the west side of Elesavetgrad is the St. Elizabeth’s campus, which includes a psychiatric hospital and several high security facilities belonging to the Department of Homeland Security. To the north is Stanton Glen Apartments, the site of at least four incidents of shots being fired in the past decade, including one in October 2016 when 50 shots were fired although no one was injured.
Kress, an Olney resident, said he has asked the Metropolitan Police to monitor the cemetery during the week when he is at his full-time job at a car dealership. Officers do keep an eye on the site, but he rarely has an opportunity to check in with them as Sunday is the only day he makes the hour-long drive to the cemetery to make sure nothing looks out of the ordinary.
In addition to the occasional police presence, there is a caretaker who lives on the grounds, who can act as an eye against vandals, he said.
But if any vandalism were to take place, Kress said the cemetery would have a difficult time paying for repairs — fixing a headstone could cost upward of $1,000. This, he said, is well outside of the cemetery’s budget.
“We don’t really plan on things happening, so we’d have to take money allocated for perpetual care and allocate it for the stones,” he said.
Similarly, there is very little security at the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery in Washington’s Capitol Heights neighborhood, said President Phil Berman.
“I hope Hashem is watching over us because we are very low on money and could not afford to put in security,” he said.
Berman said two or three men work at the cemetery during the day, but there is no one on the grounds to keep watch. So far, no one has suggested taking additional security precautions.
And Gilah Goldsmith, president of Beth El Hebrew Congregation’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, said that, “we’re not really in a position to pay” for security at the congregation’s Home of Peace Cemetery in Alexandria. She said local police provide security “in the ordinary course of their duties.” The Alexandria Police Department declined to discuss their presence at the cemetery.
But cemeteries need to be low-key about security because at the same time, they “need to be open and need to be welcoming,” said a representative of the Garden of Remembrance in Clarksburg, who agreed to speak about security on condition of anonymity.
“You can’t fence yourself off from the world,” he said.
He said the Jewish community is concerned about vandalism at cemeteries from possible copycats. Garden of Remembrance works with the Montgomery County Police Department and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to institute best security practices, which includes keeping the cemetery’s address out of advertisements and maintaining a good relationship with the surrounding neighborhood, he said.
He added that vandalism has always been an issue for cemeteries, but it is usually because of teenagers and “people they have a beef with,” as opposed to people motivated by hate.
“It’s very difficult to see the increase in signs of anti-Semitism and hate crimes against all minority groups throughout the United States,” he said. “It’s especially heinous to see it at a cemetery.”