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Cemetery officials reject JDL’s vandalism claims

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Toppled tombstone in Roselawn Cemetery. BARRY EDSON PHOTO

Despite claims to the contrary by the Jewish Defence League, officials at Roselawn Cemetery in mid-town Toronto say toppled and smashed tombstones and leaning markers are the result of age and neglect, not vandalism.

“This is not vandalism,” Neil Perry, president of the Roselawn Lambton Cemetery Association, declared flatly in response to an opposite claim by the JDL.

The damage is from age and weather, he added.

Some headstones and graves in the more-than-century-old cemetery are “very old” and the damage is most likely caused by neglect and normal “wear and tear,” said Sara Abenstein, the cemetery association’s office manager.

BARRY EDSON PHOTO

That has not assuaged the JDL, which is sticking to its claim that some of the damage is the result of recent vandalism.

The group has organized an “emergency meeting” for March 13 to discuss the matter and to announce it is starting patrols at Jewish cemeteries in and around Toronto.

It posted photographs of the damage in the cemetery, saying it was “vandalized.”

“We see stones that are smashed. That makes us more inclined to think [it was vandalism],” JDL Canada director Meir Weinstein told The CJN on March 6. “I just can’t see how everything can be weather-related when you have smashed stones.”

On March 7, after speaking with Perry, Weinstein stuck to his guns. Asked by The CJN whether he still believes the damage is the result of neglect or vandalism, he replied, “Both. I think there’s a lot of neglect in our community.”

The emergency meeting will go on as planned, he said.

“The community needs protection and we’re going to be organizing patrols. We’re going to be patrolling cemeteries and Jewish institutions.”

Asked whether he has approval from communal facilities and cemeteries, Weinstein said, “we’ll let the appropriate people know. And we’re going to work in conjunction with the police.”

Abenstein said her phones have been busy after the JDL posted pictures of bent markers and tipped-over and broken tombstones at Roselawn.

“To me it looks more like they’re old stones and some of them look very thin,” she said. Some stones in the cemetery’s Adath Israel section have been toppled over since last year, she noted.

“These stones have been down for a long time, not from vandalism.” Other damage “is not unusual.”

There was a funeral at Roselawn on March 6, Abenstein said. “You would think that if [caretakers] saw any sort of vandalism there, they would notify me. They didn’t.”

There are 24 sections in the graveyard, and the cemetery association oversees the upkeep of “10 or 11” of them, Perry said. “The others are on their own. If they don’t want to fix everything up, there’s not much I can do.”

Synagogues, Jewish fraternal groups and sick benefit societies own and administer other sections. One section belongs to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

If synagogues and Jewish groups are not fixing broken tombstones, “that’s a bad message from the community,” Weinstein said.”

The photos were sent to the JDL by Toronto lawyer Barry Edson, who visited the cemetery’s Pride of Israel section on March 6.

“I saw two stones knocked over. I didn’t know if it was vandalism or not. I don’t know what causes stones to fall over,” Edson said.

He then saw more toppled headstones in another section. “I saw a lot of damage. If it’s been there a long time, they’re not taking care of the cemetery.”

Claudia Kugelmass, a Toronto genealogy researcher, has approached several synagogues with a stake in Roselawn with the idea to tap into the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto to fund repairs at the cemetery.

“I feel the community has an obligation,” she said.

A 2012 article in the Torontoist about Roselawn Cemetery noted that “some aging tombstones have fallen and others lean perilously.”