My Hometown Synagogue’s Cemetery Was Desecrated

I just want Jewish people to be safe wherever they live in the United States.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been doomscrolling on Twitter while phonebanking.

But constantly pressing the same buttons over and over again because most voters don’t pick up the phone, or don’t want to share their voting plans, gets tiring, and occasionally seeing others scream into the void on the internet is comforting. So there I was, on Monday night, the day before Election Day, when a tweet from the ADL of Michigan made me freeze.

My hometown synagogue’s cemetery in Grand Rapids, Michigan had been vandalized, with “TRUMP” and “MAGA” painted on the headstones.

Last fall, right before Sukkot, the neighboring synagogue I used to teach at was defaced with Nazi propaganda, which I learned about from a friend’s Facebook post. Now, I was the one breaking the news when I posted on my Facebook if anyone knew any more details, or if there was a fundraiser set up.

It’s stupefying and exhausting when a city with only 1,000 Jewish people is constantly making the national news due to acts of hate against them. The national coverage also flattens the complexities of such a small community into easily digestible sound bytes that just aren’t true. Yes, the local chapter of US Jewish Dems (chaired by a friend of mine) issued a statement condemning the vandalism. But to assume that every Jewish person in Grand Rapids is a Democrat isn’t accurate.

The Grand Rapids Jewish community includes Democrats, Never Trump Republicans, Trump Republicans, Trump libertarian socialists, anarchists, and communists. All take turns leading parts of the service, sponsoring or preparing kiddush, leading Torah study, and trying to support each other in maintaining Jewish life in a city that makes that extremely difficult.

At this point, I don’t know why people painted TRUMP and MAGA on gravestones in a Jewish cemetery. It may have been a deliberate act of antisemitism. It may have been careless people looking for a reason to feel edgy and reckless at a time when traditional sources of community support are inaccessible due to a pandemic. In the end, the intention doesn’t matter that much, since using the president’s name as a slur to desecrate the dead, “own the libs” — and bring pain and trauma to living relatives of the buried — speaks volumes about where we are as a country.

The most that has been reported about the incident is that police are investigating. These same police smashed bikes into a friend’s knee, to the point where they could not walk to synagogue for several months, and deployed chemical weapons on my friends during summer uprisings. I’m left feeling like the police themselves are not going to make our city any safer.

I want whoever did this to understand how horrible it was, acknowledge the harm done, and work to repair this harm. I don’t know how this will happen in an adversarial system where being arrested could mean dying of coronavirus in jail.

On Monday, I felt helpless knowing that there was even less I could do to support my congregation than the last time it was harmed by an act of hate, due to the pandemic. So I kept calling and asking voters about their voting plans in a chipper voice. I wondered if any of the people who yelled at me or who said they voted for Trump would care that his name was daubed across gravestones in a Jewish cemetery.

It’s clear, at this point in the race, that many people had ideas about different groups and their ideologies, and even treated groups as abstract concepts rather than living, breathing people with complicated and messy politics. The thing I see over and over in Grand Rapids is that many people see “the Jewish community” as an abstract group they must “support” and “protect,” but true support and allyship isn’t as appealing because it means engaging with Jewish people as, well, people. Unfortunately, I think many well-meaning residents don’t know how to do this if there isn’t a hate crime they can rally around.

I just want the bleeding to stop. I want Jewish people to be safe wherever they live in the United States. But I don’t know how to make that happen in a world when even our dead are desecrated. Surviving the next four years, whatever the result, will require caring for each other. We have so much work to do.

Header photo courtesy ADL via Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Elena Gormley

Elena Gormley is a religious school teacher, semi-professional beehive kicker, and Masters of Social Work candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. She is a big fan of cats, destroying systems of oppression, and klezmer mariachi music.

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