Divre Harav – December/2020

Last month’s vandalism at the Ahavas Israel cemetery was shocking, disturbing. We wonder who would do such a thing, we wonder about their intent, their motivation. Were they trying to send a message, and if so — what was it? A week after the incident, we have far more questions than answers.

About a year ago on a cold September night in Duluth Minnesota, a nearly 120 year old synagogue burned down. It was a tragic fire. Churches and synagogues had been targets of hate crimes, and the early reporting reflected this fear. Less than a week after the fire, the police identified and arrested a suspect, a 36 year old homeless man. At 2:00 in the morning, he went in search of a place to sleep. He found a little shelter behind the synagogue and went inside. The small hut didn’t have a full roof. It was a Sukkah; Sukkot was approaching. He lit a small fire to keep warm. The fire got out of control and he went to a nearby gas station to call for help, but by the time he arrived, he heard the fire trucks on their way. He was arrested and immediately confessed and soon after pleaded guilty to a felony charge. He was not charge with a bias or hate crime because there was no intent to attack a synagogue or a Jewish community; he was just homeless and cold and careless.

No matter the motivation or lack thereof, losing a synagogue or finding graffiti on monuments in a cemetery is painful. But the outpouring of love and support from the community around us has reminded us that we live amongst a strongly supportive community. The day after we found the vandalism, a couple of the neighbors around the cemetery, on their own initiative, went over to scrub the paint off of the stones. They were joined by a women from Ann Arbor and several others who drove to the cemetery because they wanted to do something, as well as at least one person who stopped by to take care of their family’s gravestones.

Ed Miller, chair of the cemetery committee, and I received scores of emails, phone calls, and messages with offers of help, support, prayers, and contributions to upgrade the security of our cemetery. The notes came from a multitude of Christian perspectives — Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Christian Reformed, among others — as well as Moslem, Hindu, and Unitarian, and Jewish communities around the country and world. We responded to each one with a sense of gratitude that we live in a community of caring, loving, people.

Hanukkah, beginning the evening of December 10, is a holiday celebrating light from the midst of darkness. The vandalism in our cemetery was an act of darkness, but the community’s response chased away the darkness with the light of love.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kever – grave
  • Beit K’varot – cemetery
  • Beit Olam – cemetery (literally, eternal home)
  • Matzeivah – monument

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