Seattle's Jewish community still waiting for answers on cemetery vandalism

SEATTLE -- Members of Seattle’s Jewish community continue to seek answers as to why they feel the city and police haven’t done more to stop the desecration, vandalism and theft at a North Seattle Jewish cemetery.

A group consisting of members of the Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue, groundskeepers from Evergreen Washelli Cemetery and people from Northwest Hospital and Medical Center were gathered at the Bikur Cholim cemetery, expecting to meet with Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez.

They were instead met by two staffers from Juarez’s office who came simply to listen to their concerns.

“My dad is a Holocaust survivor. He's buried in this cemetery and he doesn't deserve this,” said Elizabeth Rosen.

For several years, groundskeepers at Bikur Cholim, Evergreen Washelli, and Seattle’s Historic Sephardic Cemetery have been having to pick up trash, used needles, and even human waste on the cemetery grounds. In some cases, groundskeepers said that human waste was found on gravestones. It’s gotten worse recently, they said.

“It’s people leaving needles on the property. We need more resources,” said Aaron Sholes, operations lead for Evergreen Washelli.

Ari Hoffman, board member of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue, said he was expecting the council member to show up.

“I wouldn't have sent out an email to the entire community telling them the council member is coming if I didn’t think the council member was coming. If I thought the staff was coming, I would've said, the staff was coming,” Hoffman said.

When Q13 first aired the story on April 23, there was a lot of trash along North 115th Street near the cemetery. Groundskeepers showed us pictures of the used needles and feces that littered the grounds.  Two campers were parked nearby and according to Hoffman, had been there for weeks. Hoffman said the owner of one camper even tapped into the cemetery’s electrical system for power.

But when members of the Jewish community were there on Tuesday, there was noticeably less trash in the area. Homeless encampments had moved on. Hoffman believes it’s temporary though.

“It's been cleaned up because of all the media attention. The people in the RVs and the people in the tents didn't like the media attention,” said Hoffman.

He believes the camper owners and drug addicts will return eventually and thinks this is just a temporary fix until something is done to stop it for good, including fixing the parking situation along the cemetery entrance, in which Hoffman said mourners were unfairly ticketed because campers took too many spots.

“We are asking them to make this whole area two-hour parking and for them to actually enforce it, that's the start,” said Hoffman. “But also the homeless crisis needs to be dealt with. Especially those who are substance dependent.”

Q13 was able to get an official response from Juarez. It said:

“I was disturbed to hear of this latest manifestation of Seattle’s homelessness crisis, and I share the frustrations of our Jewish community members. Since the synagogue contacted my office last week, I have been working with the police department and Seattle’s homelessness Navigation Team to find better places for individuals staying outside the cemetery. I am pleased to report that two residents of the encampment have since accepted the city’s offer of shelter space.

Going forward, this unfortunate episode points to the continued, urgent need to address the root causes of homelessness, whether that be the lack of affordable housing, drug treatment, or mental health services.”

The synagogue has spent $110,000 to try and handle some of the problems. This includes cutting down several trees near the back of the cemetery and installing lights. According to Hoffman, prostitution was a rampant problem. The amount also includes extra maintenance to clean up the area from constant waste, Hoffman said.

“I’m a little disappointed with the response that the council member did not show up. It's great that we have a dialogue about it, though. And people are starting to notice,” said Sholes.