Rabbi Ben-Zion Saydman never met the 26 members of his family who are buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia's Wissinoming section, but he has visited their graves, prayed over their tombs, and brought his daughter to see their final resting places.
"Though I never knew any of them, because they died before I was born, we are all links in a chain that stretches back to Sinai," Saydman said. "History is not past to us. It is a living part of us."
Saydman, 52, was at home with his daughter in Orange County, Calif., on Sunday when news broke that vandals had toppled an estimated 100 headstones at Mount Carmel, a Jewish cemetery at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues.
"It's been devastating. I broke down. I was wailing," Saydman said. "We felt it in our kishkes, which means deep, deep down inside."
Saydman said he was still waiting for friends and family to visit the cemetery and let him know whether his family's stones were among those damaged. Like many individuals with relatives buried at Mount Carmel, his calls have not been returned by cemetery staff.
"I'm hearing various reports, but no one seems to have a clear answer," he said. "It's eating me up."
Saydman's great-great-grandparents Shraga Feivel and Fruma Leah Werner are among his relatives buried at Mount Carmel. The couple emigrated from Lithuania in 1888, anglicized their names to Philip and Fannie Werner, and settled on the 400 block of South Second Street in Society Hill. There, they opened the Greater NY Extract Co. Philip Werner also served as president of Congregation Kesher Israel, Saydman said.
While Saydman's great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives are buried at Mount Carmel, some connections to their ancestors' grave sites were lost over time as family members moved away.
Saydman said that his grandmother, who moved to New York City, had kept two old Polaroid photos of the family's grave sites taken in the 1960s, but that nobody knew the name of the cemetery where they were buried. He made copies of the photos and posted them on the internet, hoping someone could help him locate the cemetery.
It wasn't until he met Philadelphia Jewish historian Harry Boonin that he learned where his relatives were buried. Boonin, now 80, looked at the photos and recognized the cemetery as Mount Carmel, Saydman said. On a "whirlwind trip" to Philadelphia in 2002, Boonin took Saydman to various city sites that held significance to the Saydman family, including Mount Carmel.
"When I had this experience at the cemetery for the first time, I was incredibly emotional," Saydman said.
Two years later, Saydman organized a family reunion in Philadelphia with relatives he had never met before from across the country, Canada, and Israel. The group traveled to their ancestors' grave sites at Mount Carmel, where they took turns reciting from the Book of Psalms and then offered a memorial prayer.
Then, in a Jewish custom of remembrance, the family members all placed small stones atop their relatives' graves.
"We still talk about that to this day," Saydman said. "It was a binding experience."
Just two years ago, Saydman brought his own daughter to Philadelphia and to Mount Carmel Cemetery.
"We're talking about her triple-great-grandparents. It was very emotional for her," he said. "We were surrounded by generations of our family linking us back to Lithuania. We were just enveloped by the love of our family."
Saydman said he hopes the culprits who desecrated the tombstones at Mount Carmel are captured and brought to justice soon.
"Who thinks of this? What kind of maniac would do this?" he said. "They really need to be given a strict punishment, and this needs to be put in front of the faces of the American people that this is not acceptable."