November 20, 2018

Local cemeteries refrain from security changes, despite heightened concern

Despite recent incidents of vandalism and desecration at Jewish cemeteries across the country, none has occurred in the Los Angeles area, and supervisors here have not yet taken any drastic actions to prevent trouble.

“We don’t feel we need added security measures or added personnel at this time,” Yossi Manela, a funeral director with Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, said.

Chevra Kadisha manages four Jewish cemeteries: Agudath Achim Cemetery and Beth Israel Cemetery in East Los Angeles, Mount Carmel Cemetery in Commerce and Young Israel Cemetery in Norwalk. All four have upright headstones.

Chevra Kadisha’s cemeteries are fully fenced with high gates. Mount Carmel and Beth Israel are open during the day and locked at night. Agudath Achim and Young Israel are always locked, but family members with loved ones buried there have access to the combination lock.

Manela, who has been a funeral director there for 23 years, said it would be too expensive to add measures such as round-the-clock security and cameras.

Jolene Mason, general manager of Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, which has a section of upright headstones, isn’t planning big changes, either.

“We’ve always had security that’s ready for anything,” she said. “That’s not just in light of what’s happening. That’s just our security policy.”

She said she has briefed the private company that handles security measures for Eden Memorial.

“We’ve just let them know in case they weren’t aware of what’s happening around the country and in case the supervisor wants to come and check more so they’re on heightened awareness,” she said. “We’re comfortable with our current security situation.”

Noelle Berman has been director of private estates at Beth Olam Cemetery in Hollywood for 16 years. Beth Olam is the 63-acre Jewish section of the iconic Hollywood Forever Cemetery that routinely draws tourist crowds visiting celebrity graves and droves of guests in the summer for outdoor movie screenings.

Beth Olam, whose graves are marked with Stars of David and menorahs, isn’t separated from the rest of Hollywood Forever. There also are some marked Jewish graves outside of the Beth Olam section, dispersed throughout the rest of the cemetery. Berman said additional security at Beth Olam, or the cemetery at large, isn’t in the plans.

“We haven’t had even one bit of concern as of this moment,” she said.

Berman cited constant foot traffic as a form of self-policing and Hollywood Forever’s central location as a deterrent to would-be agitators.

“Hollywood Forever is a cultural center,” she said. “I think there’s such a sense of community here that’s already built in that makes it feel safe. I can’t imagine anything happening here because it’s always so populated, and it’s right in the heart of Hollywood. The incidents around the country happened in more isolated areas.”

Len Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuaries, took a different tone than his peers.

“There has been a significant amount of internal conversation about what to do,” Lawrence said. “With what’s happening to other Jewish cemeteries, it would be foolish of us not to review our security procedures.”

Mount Sinai’s two parks, one in the Hollywood Hills and another in Simi Valley, are both owned by Sinai Temple. Lawrence has overseen both for the last 15 years. During his time there, he had never received security-related inquiries by phone or email from concerned family members of loved ones buried in his parks — until now.

“We have spoken to them and assured them we are doing all we can,” he said. “These are sacred grounds that we’ve always protected and need to continue to protect.”

Both parks are fully fenced, locked and rigged with alarm systems. Security is on-site at all times, and both parks are in constant radio communication with a central base station. Surveillance cameras in strategic locations throughout the grounds monitor the parks.

Lawrence pointed out that it has been upright headstones targeted in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. As memorial parks, Sinai’s don’t have upright headstones. Still, Lawrence said, that doesn’t make Sinai’s parks any less vulnerable.

“Even though we don’t have upright headstones, that’s not to say we can’t be vandalized,” he said.

He said his security personnel are adopting a proactive approach, reviewing protocol in the event of telephone threats and weighing further measures to bolster nighttime security, though for security reasons he declined to provide details.

Last week, a representative from the parks’ alarm system company made an on-site evaluation, and a representative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Security Initiative (CSI) also came for an inspection.

Ivan Wolkind, Federation’s chief operating and finance officer, established the security initiative five years ago with the aim of helping the city’s Jewish community address its security needs in a more autonomous fashion. His team of five Federation employees, all with backgrounds in either the U.S. military or Israel Defense Forces, offers free site and vulnerability assessments as well as security training to any Jewish institution in Los Angeles. Wolkind said CSI’s city database includes 470 Jewish institutions.

“We have been reaching out, being proactive, and they have been reaching out to us, as well,” Wolkind said of the work with cemeteries and memorial parks. “We just want to make sure procedures and protocols that have been put in place are being acted on and adhered to. It’s also just checking in and making sure people are vigilant.”