Winnipeg police are investigating why 70 headstones were toppled in the Shaarey Zedek cemetery

70 gravestones at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery in Winnipeg were vandalized this week, mainly in the older sections near the front entrance, according to the synagogue's executive director Ran Ukashi. (Submittted photo)

Seventy headstones were toppled in Winnipeg in a cemetery owned by Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

The damaged headstones were discovered the morning of June 29 and reported to police. They had been remounted by later that evening.

Congregants whose family headstones were toppled were also informed.

At this point it isn’t clear if it was vandalism or an antisemitic act, said Belle Jarniewski, Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

“We don’t know yet the motivation behind it,” she said, adding “it could just be stupid mischief.”

Jarniewski, who is involved in Holocaust education in the province, noted when antisemitism is involved it is usually accompanied by antisemitic graffiti.

“There was no graffiti this time,” she said.

Even without that, “it’s terribly sad,” she said. “It is such an affront and insult to those who are buried there. It was an atrocious thing to do.”

If it was vandalism, and those who did are caught, Jarniewski hopes they can be involved in some sort of restorative justice so they can learn about the impact of their actions.

“They could meet the families to see the impact of their action, maybe do some sort of work in the cemetery,” she said. “Punishment won’t achieve much of anything. Learning about how what they did affected people will be more effective.”

Ron Ukashi, executive director of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, said the cemetery has security cameras and police are collecting evidence.

“We are grateful the police are taking it very seriously,” he said, adding the Congregation is sharing all the information it has with them.

Even though the motivation behind the vandalism is unknown, Ukashi said “it is still a desecration of a sacred site. It’s an insult to the living and the dead.”

The headstones that were toppled were located in the older section of the cemetery, where graves from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are located.

Damage to the headstones is unknown, but some are chipped and scratched, he said.

Access to the cemetery is not limited, he said, noting funerals and graveside visits will still happen.

“We’re not going to let this stop us,” he said.

When the culprits are caught, he hopes there is some education component to help them understand how their actions affected families of loved ones whose headstones were pushed over.

In a statement to the Jewish community, Jewish Federation of Winnipeg President Gustavo Zentner said “we are horrified that anyone would demonstrate such a profound lack of respect by desecrating the final resting place of our community’s loved ones.”

He went on to say the Federation has offered its support to Congregation Shaarey Zedek and that the Winnipeg Police Service “is investigating this shameful act.”