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Eighty-five headstones were knocked down at the Jewish cemetery on North 42nd Street. “Every person buried in our cemetery has made his or her impact on the world in a uniquely profound way," said Rabbi Brian Stoller of Temple Israel. "Everyone buried there has a story.”

Temple Israel has raised about half the $40,000 it needs to repair 85 toppled or broken headstones at a Jewish cemetery in north Omaha.

And some of those funds have come from a Muslim charitable organization that raises money for causes throughout the U.S. and last year made headlines for donating to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after a mass shooting there.

Rabbi Brian Stoller said the congregation is trying to heal after the startling act of vandalism, which occurred some time during the first week of November at the Temple Israel property in northeast Omaha. The Temple cemetery is one of the oldest in the city and includes graves of people from three Jewish congregations, including two that no longer exist.

Temple Israel held a ceremony at the cemetery on Nov. 16 as a step toward healing. Participants then placed small stones atop the toppled graves as a sign of respect.

Stoller said the vandalism was shocking and sickening and raised questions about motives. But news about the damage ushered forth “an incredible outpouring of support and generosity from around the country,” Stoller said.

That included a $5,000 gift from Celebrate Mercy, a Philadelphia-based charitable organization that aims to teach about the Muslim Prophet Mohammed in part through donations to causes.

Founding Director Tarek El-Messidi said he estimates that the group has raised about $3 million since 2012, primarily through crowdfunding, to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries and institutions; help victims of mass shootings, including last year's shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue; and help migrants. 

El-Messidi said his organization first started raising money for Jewish institutions after a cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized in 2017.

"Our goal was $20,000. We ended up hitting that in three hours," he said. "It kept going and going."

So the cemetery fund was turned into "a rapid-response fund" for any Jewish institution, like Temple Israel's cemetery, that is vandalized.

El-Messidi said the outreach to Jewish institutions, in particular, is a reflection of a Muslim teaching to show mercy and be kind. He also said in an era when hate crimes against religious minorities like Muslims and Jews are on the rise that it was important to show solidarity.

"I do think that even after the worst of tragedies there’s good that can come out of it and bring people together," he said.

Temple Israel has raised about $20,000 so far and plans to fix the grave stones and better secure the cemetery property, which sits on North 42nd Street, north of Vernon Avenue. 

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erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136

Metro columnist

Columnist Erin Grace has covered a variety of beats since she started at The World-Herald in 1998 — from education to City Hall and from the city's western suburbs to its inner-city neighborhoods. Follow her on Twitter @ErinGraceOWH. Phone: 402-444-1136.

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