Jewish cemeteries vandalized; managers asking city for action

SEATTLE — The people who have been managing two historic Seattle cemeteries say they both are getting hit again and again by vandals.  Among gravesites going back to the Civil War, they have found needles littering the ground, headstones defaced, even prostitutes turning tricks.

Some people in the Jewish community says it's at least partly the City of Seattle's fault. The concern stems from the homeless who have set up camp near the cemeteries.

The sites of both cemeteries lend themselves to that happening. On one side of 115th St. N. is a Jewish cemetery with recent burials, Bikur Cholim. There's space here for campers to park -- the man who spoke to KIRO 7 about the issue, Ari Hoffman, says they do park.

Across the street, at the historic Sephardic Jewish Cemetery, with tombstones from the 19th century, campers also can park in front of the cemetery and this past week a tent was set up nearby. The people in the encampments are being accused of causing problems in both cemeteries.

Ari Hoffman is a second Vice President of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue in Seattle and also serves on the cemetery committee, and says the impact of seeing vandalism in the cemeteries is bad enough, “it tears my heart apart that some of the pictures I've sent you today it's the names I know, it’s the people I see in synagogue every week.”

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Hoffman did share photos with KIRO 7 as proof that the cemeteries have been disrespected, needles near tombstones, feces discarded near them or simply left on top of grave plots. He also said empty bottles and discarded drug paraphernalia led him to believe some people were partying near the plots, “people are doing drugs off the tombstones.”

He also said groundskeepers have kept track of the issues, and Hoffman says he’s seen people walking dogs on the graves and also believes prostitutes having sex in the woods behind them, “that's not showing respect for the dead.”

Hoffman says the homeless have moved in and caused concerns for years, with little response from the city so he and others with his synagogue may sue. “People are afraid to go, we've seen complaints from the Synagogue the emails have come to the synagogue, 'Have you dealt with this, have you addressed this?”

Seattle's Homelessness Emergency Response told KIRO 7 it's aware of the issues, and inspected the area Friday, saying it  will continue outreach to the people in need and figure out what's next; but didn't say whether they should be moved. In a statement, Will Lemke, communications director for the group said:

"The City is aware of the concerns near the Jewish cemeteries in North Seattle. The Navigation Team, which is the City's homelessness response team that connects vulnerable people to shelter and services, inspected the site earlier today and is assessing site conditions."

There are more than 400 unsanctioned encampments throughout Seattle and the team only prioritizes encampments for removal the pose the most significant public health and safety impacts to both people living within the encampment and the surrounding community.

Following a site inspection, the Navigation Team will conduct repeated outreach, offering services and shelter to vulnerable people they encounter and will monitor conditions within and around an encampment to determine next steps.

Some people who had parked their campers in the area left their campers when they saw our cameras and weren't pleased to see us. One woman in a camper did speak to KIRO 7 from behind her camper door and said, “graves are sacred you know, and loved ones remains are there.” While she didn’t want to show her face she did speak out against desecrating the graves, “we would never contribute to anything like that.”

Hoffman suspects the city's policy of laying off the homeless is why they're not being moved, so he's calling for action. “There's a concept in Judaism ... if there's nobody willing to do it you have to step up and do it, I don't want to be that guy but now I think I have to be that guy.”

Hoffman is getting some response; he says he'll meet Seattle council member Debora Juarez here on Tuesday.