Updated at 4:22 p.m.
Harry Boonin, for one, was not surprised by the vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery, where hundreds of headstones were knocked down late last month. The ensuing headlines, though, definitely caught him by surprise.
“The newspapers in Philadelphia traditionally stayed away from anything that touched on anti-Semitism. Everyone in town knew it was happening for 100 years,” Boonin, who is 80 and grew up in a time when the Inquirer battled the Daily News, the Bulletin, and a slew of other publications, said of local media during his youth. “People are much more open these days. They would never discuss these things when I was younger.”
Boonin, author of the Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History & Guide 1881-1930 and founding president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, will be leading a talk at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy
tonight Sunday on Mount Carmel’s history. (Update: Because of weather and slippery roads, the talk has been rescheduled to Sunday morning. It will start at 11 am.)
The cemetery is a landmark of the city’s Jewish history, Boonin explained, but it hasn’t enjoyed adequate funding for maintenance needs, especially since the recent incident wasn’t its first act of vandalism. The Jewish Exponent recently searched its archives for vandalism at local Jewish cemeteries and found 49 incidents since 1966. They pointed to two events at Mount Carmel in the ’80s, where in both instances, dozens of headstones were broken.
Burials at Mount Carmel used to be different, Boonin said. Internments were thought to date back to 1832, but the original burial book’s front cover says 1891. Boonin explained that if a South Philadelphia Jewish resident lost a child during the 1918 flu outbreak and bought a plot at Mount Carmel, they’d take the body there by horse and buggy.
Boonin grew up in Northeast Philly, not too far from the cemetery. The nearby Jewish neighborhood was really Oxford Circle, rather than Wissinoming, where Mount Carmel is located. And he’s frankly amazed that the cemetery has received so much media coverage.
He visits the grounds for genealogical research and noted that many of the descendants started moving away from Philly gradually after the Second World War.
“It’s an older cemetery that’s been abandoned,” said Boonin. “A lot of the families had members buried [there] over a century ago.”
Richard Veit, an archaeologist who studies American cemeteries, said the problems that Boonin identified are common.
“Older urban cemeteries often struggle financially when there are few new burials and descendant populations move away,” Veit explained in an email. “I think the problem is widespread, but Jewish cemeteries are particularly at risk.”
Richard Levy, who owns both Mount Carmel and another Northeast Philly Jewish cemetery Har Nebo, could not be reached for comment. Earlier this month, Philly.com reported that the nonprofit that operates the two burial grounds, per the tax records available, has spent more in recent years as assets continue to shrink.
In colonial Philadelphia, the city’s Jewish communities were home to many Sephardi Jews, who trace their roots back to Spain or Portugal. Mount Carmel was one of the first cemeteries in the city for Eastern European Jews.
Boonin explained that at the time of the cemetery’s founding, which was before Philadelphia county was consolidated into a single city, most Jewish Philadelphians lived in South Philly and Center City. There wasn’t a Jewish neighborhood in Wissinoming. Boonin said he believes the location was a real estate choice; historical atlases show that much of the neighborhood had yet to be developed.
“They needed land,” he said, “and went out to the suburbs where the land was cheaper.”