Four pebbles balance on the headstone of Rose Gitlin, signs of a Jewish rite so ancient its origins are unknown. The Talmud says stones root departed souls to the earth. They also last longer than flowers. The superstitious offer them as a protection against demons and golems.
Above Rose Gitlin’s name, below the stones, an anti-Semitic slur has been scrawled in black magic marker. This Jewish cemetery is now covered with such slurs. This one reads, in capitals: “Oy Vey Anti-Semites.” It is one of 59 headstones desecrated at the Hebrew Cemetery on McMahon Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. The cemetery’s groundskeeper, who is also president of the synagogue that buries its dead there, discovered and reported the vandalism of 20% of the graveyard’s 300 stones on Sunday, March 17.
It’s been a bitter, late chapter in the story of a congregation that is itself dying; it plans to close its doors at the end of the summer. Yet there is a sweetness, too, in the gifts and sympathy from Muslim friends, say many in the community.
Rose Gitlin was a single mother to an only son. She sang in the Temple Beth-El choir for more than a decade. She worked as a bookkeeper at a manufacturing business, managed a chain of pharmacies and was the first woman in Massachusetts licensed to fit prostheses.
“Our leadership has to be louder, bolder and much more outreaching, and broader than they’ve been. We just can’t sit back and condemn these acts after they happen. We have to call out these anti-Semites for who they are before it happens,” said Rose’s son Irving Gitlin, on the phone from Florida. He had to stand up to anti-Semitic bullying as a boy, he said.
Anti-Semitic crime has risen sharply in recent years. In 2017, local law enforcement agencies reported 938 anti-Jewish hate crimes to the FBI.
That’s up from 684 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2016, and the most in any year since 2008. A Forward analysis revealed that the data shows high levels of reporting of anti-Semitic vandalism and property damage, alongside relatively few violent incidents.
However, among those violent incidents was the worst anti-Semitic massacre in U.S. history, of 11 Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh this past November.
And property damage is a broad term, encompassing everything from a swastika etched crudely in snow or sand to cemetery desecration like what happened in Fall River this month, and St. Louis, Rochester, Philadelphia and New York in 2017.
Now, Rose Gitlin’s resting place is the scene of an unresolved hate crime investigation led by the FBI. Founded in the late 1800s, the graveyard is in the outskirts of the old mill town of Fall River, on the South End near the Rhode Island border, surrounded by wintered trees, a rusty fence, suburban homes and a postindustrial landscape of big box stores and fast food chains.
The resting place will remain in its vandalized state until after a March 26 vigil, to enable relatives to see the desecration: slogans of “Expel the Jews;” “Heil Hitler;” and a reference to Trump’s campaign — “This is MAGA country” — scrawled across the gravestones.
The vigil attracted hundreds of people — Jews, Muslims and Christians — who joined in prayers led by Rabbi Mark Elber of Temple Beth El, according to WBSM, a local radio station.
The local Lebanese-American Muslim community is “outraged that this actually took place in their city, in our city,” said Jeffrey Weissman, the cemetery groundskeeper and Congregation Adas Israel president who discovered the vandalism.
A few days afterward, Weissman said, he got a weird envelope in the mail. It looked like junk, except for the $6.80 postage. That made him think he should open it, just to make sure it really was junk, before throwing it away.
It wasn’t junk. It was a letter from ‘Muslim Americans nationwide to our Jewish cousins of the Hebrew Cemetery of Fall River.’ Inside was a check for $5,000. I just sat down and all but cried. You can’t figure people. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It just blew me away.”
Congregation Adas Israel plans to close its doors on August 31. In 2012, Weissman oversaw the sale of its building on the North End of Fall River to The Word of Life Community Church, ending over fifty years of Jewish occupancy.
In the meantime, and into the future, there is the cemetery to steward. Weissman put that $5,000 gratefully into a pot that now amounts to $16,510 and includes a donation from the Anti-Defamation League as well. The community plans to use the money to restore the stones, purchase a security system and reward anyone who helps in the arrest and conviction of the vandals.
Above a star of David on the headstone of Nathan B. Sokoll is an ornament of two hands making the sign of the priestly blessing. It means Sokoll was a Cohen, a descendant of Aaron’s lineage of priests who presided over the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Now, beside the stone’s engraving, is the graffiti, “Fuck Israel.”
“It’s sickening, and frightening. You don’t know who’s behind it and what else they will do. The people desecrated are my cousins, people I knew growing up,” said Cathy Horvitz, wife of Charlie Horvitz, who was related to Sokoll.
“MAGA and the political climate gives license for people to express their basest impulses. It shows what’s happening in our country,” she said.
Jewish war veterans from Rhode Island and Massachusetts attended the vigil, accompanied by the VFW American Legion, and an honor guard from the Massachusetts National Guard, because among the desecrated stones were many marking the graves of veterans.
The complete list of defaced and toppled stones has been made public by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, and Temple Beth-El in Fall River.
Weissman has dealt with cemetery desecration already. Before he was president, 50 headstones were damaged in a previous incident. One of the minors involved turned his friend in for $1,000, and got 90 days community service.
“I asked the judge if he could do community service in our cemetery. The fourth day he didn’t show up at all. He wound up in jail for 120 days. This is a federal hate crime. I’m not putting my hand out. I want him in jail, or them, whoever they are. I’m done being Mr. Nice Guy,” said Weissman.
Matt A. Hanson is a journalist based in Istanbul, originally from Massachusetts. His ancestors are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Fall River.