Local, national law enforcement affirm support for Jewish cemeteries

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In less than three months, hundreds of tombstones have been toppled and damaged in Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. While a motive hasn’t been determined, anti-Semitism is a possibility, especially in light of more than 100 bomb threats to Jewish institutions this year. (see ** below)

So far, Jewish cemeteries in Metro Detroit have not been harmed. However, Ralph Zuckman, president of the Greater Detroit Jewish Cemetery Association and the Michigan Cemetery Association, says, “We need to be proactive rather than reactive.”

He organized a meeting on March 8 attended by representatives of nine Jewish cemetery associations, along with personnel from four local police departments, the Detroit office of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ office. Greg Sikorski, director of community-wide security for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, provided additional guidance.

Gravestones were toppled in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia

In recent weeks, Zuckman said, Jewish cemetery officials have received some calls about security. “We had security protocols in place long before these incidents. Visitors and families understand that security is a priority,” he explained. However, the situation now seems more challenging.

Mike Schostak, a board member of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Michigan Region, provided an overview of recent events and the responses of ADL and law enforcement.

“This is a perilous time,” he said. “We have been tracking hate crimes and anti-Semitism since 1979. So far, no bombs have been found, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking this seriously.”

A sixth wave of bomb threats occurred last week in the U.S. and Canada. Schostak said ADL has met with law enforcement leaders and is monitoring social media to help them, as well as providing security advice to Jewish institutions. Heidi Budaj, ADL Michigan Region executive director, says many local Jewish schools have received calls from parents concerned about security.

Jeff Downey, assistant special agent for the Detroit FBI office, said there has been an “increase in hate speech and hate crimes since the election. There is a level of vitriol on social media that affects all minorities.” He said most of the recent bomb threats seem to be robo calls and that “something of this scale is probably not decentralized.” However, Downey said that “property damage is probably localized.”

He urged attendees not to wipe off or paint over any anti-Semitic words and images, but to first call local law enforcement. “We want to send out agents,” he said.

At the meeting held at the Max M. Fisher Building in Bloomfield Hills, police personnel from Birmingham, Ferndale, Livonia and Novi — all sites of Jewish cemeteries — pledged continuation of stepped-up surveillance of Jewish cemeteries. Most Detroit-area cemeteries are locked, gated and fenced in and some have on-site residential managers. However, a locked gate prevents police from patrolling cemeteries at night. Several police officers described special lock box devices that could provide secure access to cemetery keys for police.

While cameras, sensors and other technology can improve security, they are costly to install and maintain, law enforcement officials said. Mike Baker, representing the Department of Homeland Security, described a federal nonprofit security grant for such purposes. Michigan received $800,000 in 2016, with 70 percent allocated to Jewish agencies, he said. Funds for 2017 are not yet determined and grant applicants must have a security assessment.

“Cemeteries have such a big footprint — they are harder to secure than a building. We need to prioritize where resources go,” said Greg Sikorski, director of communitywide security for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. He stressed that staff training and liaising with local law enforcement for crime prevention tips and surveillance are essential.

**U.S./Canadian Anti-Semitic Incidents January-March 12, 2017

  • Bomb threats to more than 150 Jewish institutions, including synagogues, JCCs, schools and ADL offices
  • Damage to three Jewish cemeteries. (Damage to a fourth cemetery is now attributed to natural causes.)
  • Jewish institutions and cemeteries in 36 states and two Canadian provinces have been targeted.
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