We in the Temple Israel community, like so many others in Omaha and across the country, are saddened, angered, and disgusted by the vandalism of our congregational cemetery. On Tuesday, Nov. 5, it was discovered that approximately 50 headstones had been toppled or dislodged from their foundation, and that some of them had been irreparably broken. We are deeply touched by the innumerable people who have reached out in recent days to express their sorrow for our communal pain and their solidarity with us. Our friends and partners in the Omaha Jewish community, the Tri-Faith Initiative, and the broader community have shown tremendous leadership and compassion for our congregation. Your friendship, your kind words, and your presence alongside us have brought comfort and spiritual strength. We are grateful to know we are not alone.
Judaism teaches that each human life is a whole world in and of itself. This is why the headstones in our cemetery are more than just pieces of engraved stone, more than just markers indicating a grave. Each one is a tangible symbol of a human life; in its inscription, each one tells a story of a person who made his or her unique imprint on the world; each one is there as a lasting reminder of someone’s parent or grandparent or child or spouse or aunt or uncle or friend. The pain felt by our members whose family members are buried there – indeed, the pain felt by all the members of our Temple Israel and Omaha Jewish communities – runs deep. This vandalism is a desecration of memory, of holy ground, of family, of community, of history, and of spirit.
An investigation into the vandalism is ongoing. There is no indication at this point that this was an act of antisemitism or religious bigotry and, absent such evidence, we believe it would be irresponsible to claim or imply otherwise. At the same time, our lack of knowledge regarding the vandals’ motives does not in any way lessen the grief that we feel or our outrage at the fact that someone would desecrate a holy place and attack a religious community in such a vile manner.
Immediately upon discovering the vandalism, Temple Israel began the process of restoring our cemetery. We are making an accounting of every headstone that was damaged and will be notifying the families of those whose graves were vandalized. We want to assure our community that we are engaging in this work carefully and meticulously, and we ask for patience as we do so. There is much work to do and it will take time. It is our hope that the restoration will be completed sometime in the spring of 2020, at which time we will hold a communal ceremony of re-dedication and renewal of this sacred place, where our loved ones endure in spirit and in our memories. In the meantime, our cemetery remains fully operational.
We are ever grateful for the outpouring of love and support for our community. As we say in Hebrew: chazak chazak v’nitchazek – strength, strength, and together we strengthen one another. May we go forward together in strength and peace, and may the memories of the righteous always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Brian Stoller
Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel