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FBI investigates after 176 gravestones at Jewish cemeteries found vandalized in Ohio

Federal authorities are investigating after 176 gravestones were found vandalized in Cincinnati this week

CINCINNATI − Local authorities and the FBI are investigating after nearly 200 gravestones at two Jewish cemeteries in Cincinnati were vandalized, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati said.

Two sections of the Covedale Cemetery complex were targeted, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati said in a news release Monday. One hundred seventy-six markers were knocked over or damaged in the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and Tifereth Israel cemeteries.

The vandalism was discovered early Monday and is believed to have happened between June 25 and Monday; the damage wasn't there when a groundskeeper mowed the lawn last Tuesday, according to the news release. "The destruction includes tombstones dating back to the late 1800s, many of which have been knocked over, with some cracked in half. Most of the gravestones have been pushed face down," the release said.

On Tuesday, the damaged headstones lay flat, overturned with inscribed names hidden against the grass. In some places, whole lines of graves were knocked over and broken. In other locations, the headstones remained standing, apparently untouched.

The atmosphere was somber as small groups of family members trickled into the site in search of loved ones' graves. Many who visited seemed to recognize one another.

As of Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made. The Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati is working with SAFE Cincinnati − the security arm of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati − the Cincinnati Police Department, the FBI and Green Township to investigate.

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'Make sure everybody's stones get back up'

Law enforcement officials have advised that the vandalized markers should not be touched to "preserve the integrity of their investigation," according to the news release.

Sue Susskind, executive director of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, said she and her team will use a cemetery database to identify graves by their locations when they are cleared to do so. She advised family members who visit to report what they find to the cemetery.

No timeline was given for repairing the damaged gravestones or cost estimates for replacements.

Some families may be able to pay for repairs or replacements through their homeowner insurance policies, Susskind said. Additionally, there is a donation page on the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati website.

"We're going to do our part to work with everybody so that we make sure everybody's stones get back up," Susskind said.

'Not the first time and it won't be the last'

Visitors arrived Tuesday wanting to know if their loved ones' markers were tipped.

After learning about the damage on Facebook and in the news, one couple, who asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation, drove to the Tifereth Israel section of the cemetery. The husband said he had seen graves knocked over eight or 10 times at other cemeteries since he was a child, "but nothing like this."

Their family's marker was untouched.

Rita Birch, of the Cincinnati suburb Monfort Heights, visited the cemetery to check on markers from both sides of her family. Her family moved to the U.S. from Germany, and her relatives are buried with others from the New Hope congregation.

Birch's grandparents' headstone was fine, but her mother's was not.

"I wish I could say that I'm surprised, but I'm not," Birch said. "It's not the first time and it won't be the last."

Biden condemns vandalism

On Wednesday, a post on President Joe Biden's account on X, formerly Twitter, decried the vandalism.

"The vandalism of nearly 200 graves at two Jewish cemeteries near Cincinnati is despicable," the post said. "This is Antisemitism and it is vile." It added that the Biden administration was committed to supporting investigators and bringing justice to the perpetrators.

Was it a hate crime?

Authorities said it was unknown whether the acts of vandalism were a hate crime.

But Susskind feels the acts were motivated by hate. "One would have to think that there's more behind it than just doing something mischievous," Susskind said.

The American Jewish Committee released a statement citing the rising rate of antisemitism in the United States over the past five years. The group's 2023 report found that 25% of American Jews felt their Jewish institutions had been targeted by antisemitism.

"This incident is unfortunately part of a rising and unacceptable trend of Jewish sites being targeted by antisemitic hate in recent years. Sadly, our community is not immune," said Justin Kirschner, Cincinnati regional director for the group.

Antisemitic incidents have proliferated since the start of the Israel-Hamas war last October, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

There were 8,873 antisemitic incidents in 2023, up from 3,698 in 2022, according to their annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. From October to January, 3,291 antisemitic incidents were reported in the U.S.

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