Damage to graves reported at a Jewish cemetery in Delaware County sparked concerns about vandalism, but police said Saturday they believe the headstones were toppled by environmental and age-related factors.
But Springfield Township police said the damage at Mount Sharon was incorrectly reported as vandalism and was instead caused by environmental factors, such as bush removal, as well as age.
Police said no current vandalism investigations were underway at the cemetery. Officials did not say how they determined that the graves were not targeted by vandals or respond to requests for more information.
It also remained unclear exactly how or when the damage occurred.
News that the damage in Springfield was not believed to have been done intentionally prompted relief -- and also concern about the deteriorating condition of some of the region's cemeteries.
"I'm really grateful that the police took it seriously and acted so quickly to investigate it," said Naomi Adler, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said she was relieved by reports that the graves were not vandalized, but noted: "Many cemeteries both here and all over are very old. So the recent incidents bring to the surface what communities and individuals might want to think about in terms of preserving and caring for cemeteries."
Cemetery management would attend to the toppled headstones, police said.
No one answered the phone at the cemetery Saturday. A message was not returned.
Perpetual-care contracts that people purchase when they buy cemetery plots don't always cover the stones themselves, she said, and damage can occur for multiple reasons.
"This is a very complicated issue," Adler said. "Knowing how long a stone is going to remain in good condition is based upon how well it was put in the ground in the first place, as well as how the cemetery is maintained."
In recent months, multiple Jewish sites in the Philadelphia region and elsewhere have been targeted with vandalism and other threats. Amid that heightened attention on possible anti-Semitic acts, the initial -- and incorrect -- local news reports were quickly picked up by national and international media outlets, including the Times of Israel, New York Daily News, and the Daily Beast.
Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish burial ground in Philadelphia's Wissinoming section, was heavily damaged by vandalism in February, when about 100 headstones were toppled. That case remains under investigation, and no motive for the vandalism has been determined by police.
Regardless of motive, fixing damage is expensive. Donors gave about $220,000 to repair the damage at Mount Carmel. Nearly all of that will be needed for the fixes, Adler said.
Mount Carmel has also faced a long decline, with a dwindling endowment, only a part-time overseer, little new income, and other low-grade desecration.
A Northeast Philadelphia synagogue has been repeatedly struck by vandals since December. A 13-year-old boy was charged in late March with throwing a rock through a stained-glass window in one of the incidents. Police said the motive in that case appeared to simply be a kid "being mischievous," not anti-Semitism.