Jewish cemeteries and the soul of America

In the United States, protection of a cemetery is regulated under municipal and state law.  Not all states have explicit protections against deliberate desecration of burial places, although some, like New York, not only have them, but are in the process of strengthening their legal codes.  More needs to be done to make the perpetrators of these crimes pay dearly for what they have done, because they have vandalized and harmed the soul of America.

A cemetery is more than the final resting place of loved ones.  The cemetery represents the history of a community and sometimes the history of the United States.

Jewish cemeteries are particularly poignant reminders of community and history.  I can give an example from personal experience.

My parents and my brother; both sets of grandparents, aunts, and uncles; and the families of friends I grew up with are all buried in an active cemetery near Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  My great grandparents, at least on my father's side, are buried in lost graves in an older cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, now under restoration.  None of the burial places in the active cemetery has been disturbed, and the older burial place suffered from neglect and some destruction, although the causes are not clear.  In that cemetery are the remains of Civil war heroes, so restoration is important to recall the history of our country.

About 15 miles from the active cemetery, there is a military cemetery at Beverly, New Jersey.  My uncle Lou Bryen, who served in World War I and was a poison gas victim, is there.  He was in the 311th Infantry Battalion, part of the 78th Division.  During the summer and fall of 1918, the division was the "point of the wedge" of the final offensive, which knocked out Germany.  Lou's brother, Sam, who served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, is also buried at Beverly.

But even at the active cemetery, reminders of World Wars I and II are everywhere.  Thanks to the Jewish War veterans, those who served are remembered each year by American flags posted at their gravesites.

This reminds me of my wife's father's 90th birthday celebration (he died at the age of 95 and is buried in the same cemetery).  At his birthday party, we presented my wife's father, Bernie, with a letter from the deputy secretary of defense, celebrating Bernie's service to the United States.  He came home from the war commander of a tank destroyer with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star and, acting alone, had captured three senior German Army officers in a small town near the German border.  He was in the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, did the Anzio landing, and fought all the way from North Africa to Germany.

When I called everyone to attention to present the letter to Bernie, which is how they do it in the military service, most of the men in the room – mainly in their late 80s or early 90s – managed to stand up at attention.  All of them had served in World War II, as had the men in my family.

There are countless memories and stories that even the tombstones alone don't tell exactly, but you can feel them strongly when you are in that place.  You can feel the hardship of suffering pogroms at the hands of Cossacks in Russia, of escaping the Holocaust, of struggling to feed their families and survive in a strange land.  You can even feel the great pride when their grandchildren become doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, industrialists, social workers, and professionals in sundry fields of endeavor.  Imagine the fulfillment, the gift of hard work, struggle, and the tolerance of a great country.  There is a wonderful Jewish word, nachas – the feeling of pride and fulfillment that fills the heart and is overpowering in emotion.

When vandals and anti-Semites turn over and smash the tombstones in a cemetery, they are doing injury not only to the Jewish community, but to America.  The damage to the soul of our country is hard to fix, because it strikes at the sense of security and fulfillment that is the core idea of the American dream.