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Grave concerns: Controversy over toppled headstones in Jewish cemetery

Toppled tombstones: Local pols remain convinced that more than 40 downed headstones at Washington Cemetery in Mapleton are the result of vandalism — despite officials saying otherwise.
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They cast the first tombstone.

Local pols rushed to hold a press conference at Mapleton’s Washington Cemetery on March 5 to decry 42 toppled tombstones as an act of vandalism, but officials at the largely Jewish cemetery — whom the pols didn’t consult — say the headstones simply fell over because of age and the elements.

Now cemetery officials are blaming the politicians for sowing fear without doing their homework.

“These politicians rushed to judgement that it’s vandalism,” said Micheal Ciamaga, the manager of the Bay Parkway burial ground. “If they would have contacted us and waited, we could have wrapped this up easily with them. Some of the older stones are unstable and fall over. It’s not vandalism.”

Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D–Borough Park) led a press conference with Councilman David Greenfield (D–Midwood), and community leaders on the fallen grave markers after a local who regularly strolls the grounds on the Sabbath noticed the stones and alerted officials after sundown. Pols consulted with police, who had begun investigating the matter, but broadcast their concerns before speaking with managers at the cemetery, according to Hikind who tweeted “#Antisemit­ism” with a picture of an overturned headstone Sunday morning.

Police have since determined that the fallen headstones were not toppled by vandals, said a detective.

“There isn’t any evidence that it’s vandalism. It seems like it was a result of long-term neglect,” said Detective Ahmed Nasser. “The case status is still open, however, based on speaking with the manager of the cemetery, it seems the stones fell as a result of long-term neglect and the environment.”

But Hikind and community leaders continue to insist that it’s no coincidence that dozens of tombstones in the same section of the graveyard are down. They point to a break in the barbed wire on the six-foot fence near 20th Avenue and 57th Street that bounds the cemetery as a sign that something more is going on. Some stones may be falling because of neglect, but local pols still suspect foul play, said Hikind.

“Those tombstones that the cemetery said were lying down, those are not the ones we are talking about. I’m aware of those. The issue is that in this one section of the cemetery you have all these tombstones that look like they were tampered with,” said Hikind. “I don’t believe it was the wind that blew them down — that’s ridiculous. Someone cut the fence to get into the cemetery — quiet obviously. Something is not kosher here.”

Washington Cemetery is no strangers to desecration. In 2010, vandals scrawled graffiti on 200 tombstones and pushed them over. And news of the disturbed stones comes after vandals targeted a series of Jewish cemeteries in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.

But Washington Cemetery’s manger says family members are responsible for maintaining the headstones and at times they go uncared for. If workers spot a downed stone they set it upright. But in the winter it’s harder for workers to keep up with raising downed stones because the sprawling cemetery lacks its seasonal staff, and it may be a while before workers even notice the toppled stones, according to Ciamaga.

Nevertheless community leaders remain skeptical and demand an in-depth investigation before dismissing the act.

“I believe that it’s a strong possibility that it was vandalism, and I would like a thorough investigat­ion,” said Barry Spitzer, Community Board 12’s district manager. “What we’ve called for is an investigation, and I don’t think this is creating fear. We need a thorough investigation because if it was vandalism, then a very serve and grave crime was committed here.”

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.
Updated 10:31 am, March 7, 2017
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