Police looking at destruction of Jewish graves in Hartford as a hate crime

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HARTFORD -- The president of Congregation Ados Israel continues to find evidence of vandalism inside the cemetery plot he cares for at Zion Hill.

On Friday, Leonard Holtz found a top adornment on his own family's headstone had been lopped off.

"I'm holding one of the most personal pieces of the vandalism --in front of my grandparents' grave," said Holtz, visibly upset.

On Thursday, after hearing about destruction at a different Jewish plot within Zion Hill, Holtz checked on his section.

"Basically I froze," he said describing his discovery and pointing to a large gravestone from 1913. "It is both knocked over. It is damaged. It is broken. Chips of the polished granite have been broken away."

Hartford police estimate about 35 historical headstones suffered a similar fate in what are just two incidents of Jewish cemetery vandalism as of late.

"It's concerning to us. We've been following this case, personally, I have for 15 years, and it's been going on a lot longer than that," said Dep. Chief Brian Foley of the Hartford Police Department.

He did not hesitate to label the case a "hate crime."

"In that specific section, strings of headstones knocked over, you can't tell me that's not targeted," said Foley.

Rabbi David Small of Emanuel Synagogue said desecrating a grave is extremely hurtful to those of the Jewish faith.

"There's something called "k'vod hameit" which means honoring the dead," said Small, explaining that Jews do that in graveyards by writing a loved one's name in stone.

"So when that marker which affirms that your life is worth something is knocked over, it's a negation of the worth of that person's life," he said. "The dead are vulnerable, they can't defend themselves."

Holtz is trying. The lock and chain he put on the gate after a round of vandalism a few years ago were missing on Thursday.

"Obviously someone has a chain cutter and is gaining access to this cemetery intentionally for purposes that have resulted in vandalism," he said.

Adding security cameras is an option, Holtz said. Foley said police are working on "creative ways" to solve this case, too.

"It is a difficult thought to imagine that the loved ones here are not resting peacefully," said Holtz.

Foley said the Hartford Police Italian Officers Association was so moved by this incident that members donated $500 towards headstone repairs.