The vandalism at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood is both distressing and unacceptable, says Jarah Greenfield, the congregation’s rabbi. It may also offer an important opportunity, however.
Greenfield said that as shocked as people were to see the signs of hatred etched around the synagogue, “The stronger impression was how this desecration so quickly transformed into an opportunity to strengthen our community relationships. The sense of solidarity in the town is truly amazing.”
After the shul board convened an emergency meeting to discuss the damage – swastikas and hate symbols were spray-painted on four areas outside the building – Greenfield reached out not only to town authorities and Jewish communal groups, but to interfaith venues, as well. Their response, she said, “has been nothing less than impressive and beautiful.”
It is believed the vandalism took place Saturday night, at this point by unknown perpetrators. According to Greenfield, who was in the synagogue Sunday morning but had entered through the side – where there was no damage – two board members discovered the graffiti at 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, before children arrived for religious school classes. They reported it to her immediately and then notified the police.
“The police were extremely quick and thorough,” she said. “The most impressive part is that by time I had contacted the borough administration, the police department had already told them about it.”
The borough’s current mayor, Timothy J. Eustace; incoming mayor Gregg Padovano; administrator, Thomas Richards; and police Sgt. Mark Gillies met with Greenfield, demonstrating “a surge of concern and solidarity” and assuring her that a statement condemning the vandalism would be forthcoming.
In addition, said Greenfield, “The town’s DPW came [on Monday] and cleaned it up. They power-washed as much as they could.” Even though the damage was on private property, “they wanted to do it,” the rabbi said.
Greenfield also contacted the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and other local rabbis whose congregations were hit by anti-Semitic activity in recent years. In addition, she reached out to colleagues – members of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis – and to Father Lawrence Fama, a Catholic priest in the borough.
The graffiti, which included not only swastikas but code phrases used by white supremacist groups, was found on the sidewalk outside the shul, on an entry ramp, on building columns, and on the synagogue’s front sign. One scrawl, said Greenfield, blamed Jews for the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
“It’s a beautiful synagogue,” said Greenfield, pointing out that the congregation has occupied the building since 1931. This is the first time she has witnessed vandalism against the building, although an older congregant said he recalled an incident many years ago.
As a next step, the congregation is planning to convene an interfaith gathering for the community at large to “recognize the strength of solidarity in a diverse community and to celebrate it,” said Greenfield. Billed “Spreading Light in Maywood,” the event will take place on Dec. 20, the first night of Chanukah, at 7 p.m. at the shul. Borough officials and representatives of other religious groups are expected to attend.
“We’ve seen the community function at its best and strongest,” said Greenfield. “I was particularly heartened by congregants who stopped by to check it out and by their gathering together to discuss how to address the issue, allowing us to grow from this with pride.”
At an assembly held for the synagogue’s youngsters to discuss the incident, one bat mitzvah student said she would commit to wearing a kippah to school to demonstrate her pride in being Jewish.
“For her bat mitzvah [project], she’s going to raise money for supplies to complete the clean-up and restoration,” said Greenfield. “She will also write a letter to the school paper about what happened, and is thinking about how to expand her fundraising to help other people who experience hatred and discrimination.”
The rabbi said the ADL stressed that the synagogue should make the issue of security a key priority. The shul’s board, she said, will certainly do that.
“This occurrence is a desecration, but it’s prompting an enormous swell of support ,” said Greenfield. Her synagogue, she said, prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive.
In the aftermath of this incident, “We will have a chance to demonstrate that we care about justice and respect diversity.”
Joy Kurland, the JCRC director, said the Maywood incident has to be seen in the context of a broader issue, “fostering mutual respect and tolerance. From it can come something positive,” she said. “People have to understand that we live in a diverse society.”
Kurland stressed the importance of building intergroup coalitions, so that when incidents such as this occur, they can be processed by the entire community “within an arena of mutual respect and understanding. A positive message can evolve when people stand together,” she said.
Such incidents are “totally unacceptable in any way, shape, or form in any community,” she said. “We would expect people to rally and take a hard stand against them.”
As former chair and now a member of the Bergen County Human Relations Commission, which supports programs promoting tolerance and combating bigotry, Kurland pointed out that there are many resources in the county for addressing situations of this kind.
The Maywood Police Department’s Sgt. Gillies said, to his knowledge, this is the first such incident in Maywood, “though people have been arrested elsewhere” for similar acts. He noted that the police department uses an e-mail system to share information with other towns “to link suspects with similar incidents in the same time frame.” In this case, he said, while there are no definite suspects, “There’s good information for people to look at.”
The Maywood police department, he said, has also reported the incident to the state police and the prosecutor’s office. While investigations of all crimes follow a similar procedure, he said, if an arrest should be made, penalties are stiffer for those who commit bias crimes.
“No one wants to see something like this,” he said. “It affects the whole community.”