Thank you, President Trump

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Maybe it’s time to thank President Trump, I thought during a recent visit to Philadelphia’s Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Since Number 45 took office about 100 days ago, it’s gone a lot like this:

Trump says or does or signs something awful, and despite mounting odds, something good often comes from it. (Nuclear war notwithstanding, of course.)

He disparages women, and they take to the streets for what has been estimated to be the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history – then follow that landmark resistance by increased interest in running for office.

He signs a discriminatory travel ban, and citizens across the country rush to airports to rally against it and in support of those who were targeted.

His divisive rhetoric is blamed for an increase in racist and anti-Semitic violence and vandalism, including at numerous Jewish cemeteries, and people of all races and religions stand united against hate.

That’s what happened in February when about 100 headstones were overturned at the Jewish cemetery in Northeast Philly.

Almost as soon as the vandalism was publicized, people headed to the cemetery; many to see if their relative’s stones were among those damaged but even more to help in any way they could.

A Go-Fund-Me page was started, area Muslims showed up in solidarity, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which raised more money, took the lead in an ongoing cleanup and restoration effort. Despite pleas for safety people couldn’t keep themselves from showing up and trying to raise toppled stones by hand.

Ayel Morgenstern, a 6-year-old girl from Florida, sent a box full of colorfully painted rocks to place on the desecrated headstones with an achingly adorable note.

“I wanted to make the world better and do a mitzvah. Love, Ayel.”

Whatever the motive of this still unsolved vandalism, I doubt this was the intended consequence.

For two weeks in late March and early April, Joe Ferrannini, a cemetery conservator based in upstate New York, supervised the project with the help of the National Park Service’s Northeast regional office. They’ll be back at it next week.

It’s unclear how much they will be able to get done. In addition to the cost, there is also the time it takes to re-set the stones that were tipped over and the ones that have sunk into the ground over time.

“We couldn’t just pass those by without repairing them,” said Ferrannini.

Which leads me back to that Trump-era silver lining I mentioned, because as disturbing as the crime was, it’s led to some much needed attention to our neglected cemeteries and history.

“It’s not going to solve everything but it’s making a good dent,” said Dennis Montagna of the National Parks Service. “And it’s going to point the way toward what comes next.”

What comes next depends a lot on the community, and whether they can sustain the vigilance that’s followed the vandalism.

“One of the silver linings of this situation is increased interest in the community’s cemeteries as a shared monument of our past,” said Addie Lewis Klein, the Jewish Federation’s director of community engagement. 

“We are hoping that the interest continues and that it won’t just be an interest in the gravestones of our own relative’s but also in the maintenance of our cemeteries.”

In Philadelphia, Mount Carmel is one of the oldest cemeteries founded by European Jews. The issues at aging cemeteries like it go well beyond vandalism, so the Federation is looking into assessing the conditions of more than a dozen cemeteries in the area.

“It may not be the focus of why we’re here but it’s an opportunity to open people’s eyes to what’s going on before the history is lost, Ferrannini said.

Those aren’t just words from a man who named his business, Graves Matter. Ferrannini’s interest in grave restoration started after a visit to an old family cemetery that was also in tough shape.

“Instead of just getting angry, I got involved,” he said.

That sounds about right, for the cemetery and the country.

Everything is happening so fast — or at least that’s how it feels trying to follow politics these days. You’ve seen the headlines about President Trump and his policies — but what do they mean for Philadelphia? What does that mean for you? We’re launching a newsletter to explore just that. Sign up here.

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