Work to restore desecrated headstones at Mount Carmel, the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish cemetery that was vandalized last month, is set to begin Monday.
Richard Levy, the administrator of the burial ground, told Billy Penn that a team of stonemasons, experts, volunteers, along with his own staffers, will be taking on the repair. As promised, the Building Trades Council will be sending workers. Notably, the National Park Service will be participating in the restoration process. Dennis Montagna, chief of the Monument Research and Preservation Program at the NPS’ Northeast Regional Office, will be on-site.
Roughly 175 tombstones were hit by the vandals, per Levy’s count, who added, “there are other stones that are down from basic deterioration.” He said there are 4,500 burials at Mount Carmel, but noted that this estimate came from an Eagle Scout project.
Mount Carmel is one of the oldest cemeteries founded by European Jews in Philadelphia. Levy, whose company acquired the cemetery in 2007, said its records are “abysmal,” but the original burial book bears the date 1891 on its cover.
Joseph Ferrannini, a cemetery conservator based in upstate New York, will be leading efforts with Montagna’s assistance. According to Philly.com, burials at Mount Carmel are few these days. A genealogical expert described the cemetery as “abandoned,” explaining that many families with relatives laid to rest there left the area decades ago. Many of the headstones are are tipping, having sunk unevenly into the soil over time.
“When people were just standing up stones, they weren’t really fixed,” Montagna said of the immediate response to the vandalism. “They could fall over easily because they weren’t set properly.”
The restoration team will start at the base each toppled headstone, level it with a mixture of sand and gravel, then carefully put the stone back in place.
“We’re not glueing the stones together,” said Montagna. “We’re setting the stones as they originally would’ve been.”
Glue, or rather an epoxy resin, will come into play for the headstones and monuments that have cracked. Not mixing up fragments is one reason that the team is hesitant to say when repairs will be finished. Rain is another. “It’ll go according to the weather,” said Levy. Montagna said the process is being viewed tentatively as a two-week effort, but workers don’t have a hard deadline.
“You really don’t want to rush it because you want to make sure that you’re being safe,” said Montagna. “As you can imagine, these stones are immensely heavy, so we need to be careful handling them.”
The cemetery, which has been vandalized before, has long been underfunded, considering mounting preservation and restoration costs.
“There’s isn’t a cemetery that couldn’t use more money. But it definitely could use more,” Levy said of Mount Carmel’s maintenance. “Hopefully there’ll be [funds] left over when we get the headstones up and the place secured from all the donations.” Last month, City Councilman Bobby Henon tweeted that IBEW Local 98 would cover the cost and installation of security cameras there.
Mount Carmel’s preservation hurdles aren’t unusual. “Older urban cemeteries often struggle financially when there are few new burials and descendant populations move away,” Richard Veit, an expert on US cemeteries, told Billy Penn in an email last week. “I think the problem is widespread, but Jewish cemeteries are particularly at risk.”
Montagna said their efforts won’t be limited to repairs, but will also include strategy, “to put them on a better footing to maintain the cemetery moving forward.”