Colorado Jewish Cemetery Promised $100,000 by BDS Activist Linda Sarsour in March 2017 Says Money Still Hasn’t Arrived
A Jewish cemetery in Colorado that has fallen into severe disrepair has yet to receive a check for some $100,000 from a group associated with Palestinian-American BDS activist Linda Sarsour, despite being promised the money several months ago, The Algemeiner learned on Tuesday.
Neal Price of the Golden Hill Cemetery in Lakewood, CO said he had left three unreturned voicemails for Tarek El-Messidi, the founder of non-profit Islamic education organization Celebrate Mercy, who led the high-profile effort by the Muslim community in February and March to raise money for vandalized Jewish cemeteries in the US. El-Messidi’s partner in the effort was Sarsour.
Price has been the primary caretaker of the Colorado cemetery for 35 years, and has tried doggedly to raise money to restore the area containing 800 graves of impoverished tuberculosis victims, buried there in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the years, Price said there have been numerous false starts in his attempts to get grants for landscaping and security for the site.
“The Jewish community has many needs, and the focus is mostly on the needs of the living, or the active part of the cemetery,” he said.
Price was first told about the Celebrate Mercy campaign’s money by Jennifer Goodland, a local who had never before been intimately involved in the cemetery rehabilitation efforts.
The campaign — named “Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery” — had raised $162,468 through the Muslim crowdfunding site LaunchGood, far beyond its set goal of $20,000. A total of $50,000 was distributed to three Jewish sites that had been vandalized: Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in St. Louis, MO ($40,000), the Waad Hakolel Cemetery in Rochester, NY ($5,000) and the Chicago Loop Synagogue ($5,000). The director of the Missouri cemetery confirmed to The Algemeiner the receipt of the check, while other news sources have reported the New York and Illinois locations got the money as well.
El-Messidi and Sarsour also made public announcements that funds raised would go to fix Jewish graves in Philadelphia desecrated in February. Locals in charge of the Pennsylvania effort said they were approached by Celebrate Mercy, but they turned down the money as they were not in need of further assistance.
On March 24, the Celebrate Mercy campaign organizers announced on the website:
With extra funds raised, we have decided to embark on a major project to restore a neglected and vandalized Jewish cemetery in Colorado which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Costs will be over $100K. Learn about the story of this historic cemetery here. We are now hoping to raise a total of $200,000 to ensure we have the funds for this project while helping other vandalized sites as well.
The $200,000 mark set for Golden Hill did not appear to have been reached by the time the campaign ended on May 31.
Ted Ruskin, who has been involved with Golden Hill since 1989, took El-Messidi on a well-publicized tour of the cemetery in April. He told The Algemeiner in May that El-Messidi seemed “willing and ready to give the money,” but he had no contact with Celebrate Mercy following that visit.
Price, Ruskin and others involved in the cemetery restoration effort met in June to determine what to do with the Celebrate Mercy money.
“We divvied up the tasks to get bids on landscaping, a fence and other security,” said Price. “Plans are in place. We just need the money.”
But Price has not heard from Goodland for weeks. At his most recent attempt to get in touch, Goodland’s husband, David Lustig, told him that she was sick.
Goodland spoke with The Algemeiner on Tuesday. She described herself as a “person who works by opening my mouth to the right people, and getting grant money by connecting people with the right people.” She became interested in Golden Hill after her mother, a reporter, wrote about the site for a local paper. Goodland said that El-Messidi contacted her after reading that article and expressed interest in helping out the effort.
Goodland said she was last in touch with El-Messidi over Facebook at the end of the Ramadan fasting period, which concluded on June 24.
She said she expected the money would eventually exchange hands, though it might take time.
Despite Price’s three calls to El-Messidi, Goodland pinned Price’s inability to connect with the Celebrate Mercy founder on the former’s lack of understanding about crowdfunding and social media (the best way to reach El-Messidi, according to Goodland, is Facebook).
“Neal is used to the formalized traditional structure [of grant-giving],” Goodland said. “We need to get Neal in front of Facebook Messenger or something. You know, Tarek is raising money for multiple causes at the same time, and he had a lot going on with Ramadan and dealing with Islamophobia.”
Goodland added that she and Lustig would like to “make Golden Hill our priority,” but that for the last few years, she has been working through a disability and her husband has been recovering from a “severe TBI [traumatic brain injury].”
Going forward, she noted, “I will be kicking to a support role on Golden Hill and my husband will be working on the project full time.”
Concerns were raised about El-Messidi and Sarsour’s handling of the crowdfunded money earlier this year. In May, Sarsour accused Jewish New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind of “put[ting] out lies…without any backup, to cast doubt and to defame me,” after Hikind wrote on Facebook about the Celebrate Mercy crowdfunding effort: “How much of that money — if any — actually went to these cemeteries?”
Price told The Algemeiner that he has no expectation that he will ever see the Celebrate Mercy money.
“I’ve been doing this [non-profit work] a long time, so I know how it works,” said Price. “You need budgets and time tables, and none of that is here.”
El-Messidi did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment by press time.
UPDATE: In a response she issued following the publication of this story, Sarsour told The Algemeiner that El-Messidi was “awaiting a proposal from the cemetery for potential costs so they can be allocated. This proposal/estimates have not been delivered to Tarek and Celebrate Mercy, who too have to maintain the intention and integrity of the donations received. We promised people they would all go to helping Jewish cemeteries and that’s where they will all go.”
This story was changed following publication to include the correct spellings of the names of Jennifer Goodland and David Lustig.