When she read a story on social media about headstones in a Jewish cemetery being vandalized in Michigan, my niece, Meghan Cohen, thought immediately of the cemetery in the Detroit area where her grandparents and aunt are buried.
A college professor in Denver, Meghan quickly decided that if the vandals had defaced the graves of her loved ones, she would hop on a plane—despite the COVID-19 pandemic—and head for Detroit to clean them.
Soon, however, she learned the desecration occurred at the Ahavas Israel Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, Mich. Discovered hours before President Trump visited the city on Nov. 2, the day before the election, the words “TRUMP” and “MAGA” were painted on the gravestones. No one knows for sure yet who did it—or why. Was it for a political purpose, from those on the left or right, or simply a Halloween prank?
Meghan was relieved the incident didn’t happen in Detroit. But she was still upset and wondered what she could do and asked her mother, Donna, my sister, about it. Donna called me and asked me to do a story. “You’re a writer. You are good with words. People need to know about this. It’s terrible,” said Donna.
Although I agreed with her, I told her my job these days is to cover stories involving the Christian Reformed Church. This rotten incident had no apparent connections to the church, I said. Still, she pressed, see what you can do.
Pretty sure there was no connection, other than that Christians and Jews worship the same God of Scripture, I agreed to check it out. It turns out, after making a few phone calls, I found a very strong connection that has to do with loving our neighbors.
First, I called David Krisef, rabbi of Ahavas Israel, who told me the synagogue had received calls and messages from people all over the U.S. and beyond expressing outrage and sadness over the incident. As we talked, he also spoke of the significance of memory in the Jewish faith and how they set aside special services every year to honor family members who have passed away. Scrawling words on the headstones hits them in a hard, deep place because it is like people are trying to harm, even destroy, the memory of those buried there.
If I wanted to know more, the rabbi suggested I call Ed Miller, cemetery chairman for Congregation Ahavas Israel. When we connected, Ed told me he had been busy fielding calls from all over the place, including from the Anti-Defamation League of Michigan which was putting together a $3,000 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the vandalism. Located down a narrow road in northwest Grand Rapids, the cemetery is the resting place for people who came to West Michigan more than 100 years ago from countries in Europe. Carrying with them their own stories and history, they established lives in this community. They stayed and prayed and started businesses and raised their children.
“Definitely there is a lot of sadness, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support we are getting,” said Ed. “I don’t really know who did this or why.”
Assuming he might have marshalled synagogue members to clean the graves, I asked him anyway. To my surprise, I learned that wasn’t the case at all. Not long after the defacing, two women who aren’t Jewish and live in the neighborhood showed up with buckets of water, soap, sponges and cleaned the graves.
Who were they? I asked.
“They don’t want anyone to know who they are. They were just neighbors who wanted to help out,” said Ed.
There you go, I thought. For me, this took the story to another level. And Reggie Smith, the CRC’s director of diversity, heartily agreed.
“It is absolutely profound what those ladies did,” he said. “They didn’t want their faces on TV. They did it out of generosity. We need more acts like these—they move us away from tribalism to a place of common ground.”
These women were doing what we are all called to do—showing love for our neighbors, a call that goes out to people of all faiths and was an act that as Reggie says brings us together.
When I called Meghan to tell her about what I learned, she spoke first of how she read letters to the editor in the Detroit Free Press after the vandalism. The letters were full of rage and hate, coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Anger seemed to be their only response. Reading the letters disturbed her in a profound way. But hearing what I told her brought a note of hope to her voice.
Thinking about those two anonymous women, she said. “That is so great. I’m so happy to hear that. Loving your neighbors is what this is all about.”