01:15 - Source: CNN
Historic Jewish cemetery vandalized

Story highlights

Police aren't saying whether the cemetery vandalism is considered a hate crime

Missouri investigation comes as US Jewish Community Centers reported more threats

CNN  — 

Even from the air it looks chaotic, like someone has angrily scattered previously tidy rows of toy blocks.

A view from the ground shows a more somber reality – scores of granite and marble tombstones, toppled and damaged in a historic Jewish cemetery at a time tensions in the nation’s Jewish communities are already high.

A vandal or vandals toppled and damaged more than 100 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City within the past week, police said Monday. Workers spent part of Tuesday using crane trucks to upright some stones and documenting which memorials will need replacing altogether.

Police are investigating the damage to headstones at Missouri's Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery.

The vandalism report came on a day the White House denounced a spate of recent bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country, including 11 threats reported Monday.

“A lot of people are coming out (to the cemetery) – they’re just interested to see, ‘Was their loved one’s monument affected by this?’ ” Phillip Weiss, owner of a monument company helping the cemetery lift the downed stones, told CNN affiliate KTVI on Tuesday morning.

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Police didn’t release further details about when the vandalism happened at the cemetery, a burial ground since the late 1800s. But they said officers first responded to a report about the damage about 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Officials at the fenced and gated cemetery believe it happened over the weekend; it was closed between late Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

Police said they didn’t immediately know who did it, or why. Investigators are reviewing security camera footage in the areas surrounding the cemetery but would not say if they considered the vandalism to be a hate crime, according to KTVI.

The vandalism left families wondering whether their loved ones’ tombstones were affected, what it will take to repair the damage and whether their heritage had anything to do with why it happened.

TV host: ‘Extremely personal for me’

The vandalism drew dismay from people whose relatives are buried there, including Bravo’s Andy Cohen, host of “Watch What Happens Live” and executive producer of The Real Housewives franchise.

Cohen devoted a few moments of Monday night’s “Watch What Happens” show to the incident, calling the vandal or vandals the “Jackhole of the Day.”

“This is extremely personal for me because my great grandparents and many other of my relatives are buried there in that cemetery,” said Cohen, a St. Louis-area native. “I don’t have to have a personal connection, though, to know that this is not who we are as Americans, and this certainly should not be where we are heading.”

He didn’t say whether his relatives’ headstones were damaged. On Facebook, the cemetery said it aimed to publish the names of the interred whose headstones were damaged by Wednesday morning.

‘Shockwave through the … Jewish community’

“Many monuments are facing down and we won’t be able to read the names and see if there is any damage until we lift the stones. We want to minimize further damage and need to take the proper precautions,” a separate Facebook post from the cemetery reads.

Emily Wasserman of Chesterfield, Missouri, told CNN that she learned about the vandalism Monday night as she was browsing Twitter. Her great-grandparents have graves there, but she didn’t immediately know whether their tombstones were affected.

She planned on visiting the cemetery to learn more Tuesday or Wednesday.

“People in St. Louis are disheartened by the vandalism,” she said. “I grew up in St. Louis but I also went to college here, and many of my former classmates from (Washington University in St. Louis) are speaking out against the vandalism on Facebook and other social media platforms.

“I think that the violence sent a shockwave through the St. Louis Jewish community.”

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens tweeted Monday night that he was “disgusted to hear about the senseless act of desecration at the cemetery in University City.”

“We must fight acts of intolerance and hate,” the tweet reads.

In a statement posted on Facebook, Greitens called the damage a “cowardly” and “despicable act of what appears to be anti-Semitic vandalism.”

Jewish community on edge

Regardless of the motive for the vandalism, the cemetery is sacred ground, said Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of St. Louis.

“There’s a difference here between intent and impact. The intent may have been one thing, but the impact is huge on the Jewish community,” she told KTVI. “This is where your loved ones come to be safe in perpetuity.”

Aroesty said while St. Louis was not targeted in bomb threats reported at Jewish Community Centers across the country Monday morning, the St. Louis Jewish community received similar threats last month.

“The level of tension in the Jewish community is pretty high,” she told the TV station.

The land where the cemetery is located was purchased in 1893 by a group of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Jewish Centers the target of bomb threats

The investigation into the cemetery break-in comes as 11 phoned-in bomb threats were reported by various Jewish centers across the country Monday morning, according to the JCC Association of North America.

From the start of the year through Monday, 69 bomb threats have made to 54 Jewish centers in the United States and Canada, said David Posner, the association’s director of strategic performance.

No bombs were found, and no one was injured in connection with the threats, according to the organization, which is working with law enforcement and the FBI to investigate the calls.

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement: “While ADL does not have any information at this time to indicate the presence of any actual bombs at any of the institutions threatened, the threats themselves are alarming, disruptive, and must always been taken seriously.”

Trump responds to anti-Semitism

The Trump administration has faced criticism that it had not sufficiently rebuked acts of anti-Semitism that have occurred nationwide since the election.

On Tuesday, President Trump addressed the issue while visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” he said. “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

CNN’s David Williams, Dani Stewart, Artemis Moshtaghian and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.