Swastikas at Acton synagogue spark outrage, dialogue

| December 18, 2009

While many Acton residents were out shopping on Black Friday, Matthew Liebman was on the phone with the police reporting what he had just found: a swastika formed with sticks on the ground and another carved into a pumpkin in front of the Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue.

According to the Acton police department, temple board member Liebman had no idea where the items came from. The two-foot square wooden swastika arranged on the front walkway was made from stakes, and police found similar stakes in the nearby Kmart parking lot. The small pumpkin had a swastika carved on the front and was placed at the entrance door.

No physical damage was done to the building.

However, members of the community say the emotional damage runs deep.

When congregation leader Rabbi Lewis Mintz heard the news his reaction was a mixture of distress, anger and sorrow. The Beth Elohim community has “not a small number” of people directly affected by the Holocaust, he said, including people who escaped Nazi Germany, families who lost relatives and children of survivors.

“It’s not just a statistical or historical thing,” Mintz said. “It’s personal.”

Mintz sent an e-mail out to the synagogue’s 350 families the following Tuesday with the news and held a meeting with two dozen lay leaders. He also informed Acton, Boxborough and Stow clergy, many of whom responded by asking the person or people responsible to come forward and collectively writing a letter to The Beacon condemning the vandalism. Thirteen members of local clergy from various faiths drafted and signed the letter, including the Rev. Ute Molitor of United Church of Christ, Boxborough.

“We need to be concerned so that our young people are not drawn into destructive acts,” Molitor said in a telephone interview.

If the perpetrators are found, she would want them to face someone they affected with their actions in restorative justice, she said. That’s what happened in the spring of 2008, when four middle school kids were charged with painting swastikas on school property.

The Rev. Bob Moore of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Acton also signed the letter and said that any kind of hate crime is a crime against humanity, and it was important for the community to speak out against the incident.

“Silence tends to heighten the power that the crimes have,” he said.

Citing the clergy’s response along with other statements and letters of recognition, Mintz said his congregation feels gratified that the community has responded in solidarity against the incident.

“This isn’t just an attack on us,” he said. “This is an attack on the community.”

For Beth Elohim education director Leann Shamash, whose father survived the Holocaust, the incident was worse than just vandalism. It was a real threat, she said.

As a Newton resident who has served as the synagogue’s education director for seven years, Shamash said she has always felt safe in Acton and Boxborough. The 25 high school students who attend Beth Elohim’s religious school felt the same way, until now.

“They are not in the cocoon that they thought they were,” she said.

The incident was a teachable moment, Shamash said. As an educator, she felt it was important for students to discuss the issue openly and decide on way to respond as a group. After a meeting, the students also voted to write a letter to The Beacon. The important thing, Shamash said, was that the kids had a voice.

“If you even take a small step,” she said, “it can go somewhere. It can make a difference.”

Sal Lopes, chairman of Acton’s No Place for Hate committee, prescribed increased awareness and open discussion of hate crimes as the best way to fight back. The committee hosts a Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast every year and has held forums on diversity and bullying in recent years. Perhaps it’s time for a forum on hate crimes, Lopes said.

However, as much as public awareness is key, Lopes said the primary educators are parents.

“The reality is, a lot of this comes from family,” he said.

The No Place for Hate committee is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, a national watchdog for incidences dealing with hate in the community and anti-Semitism in particular. Derrek Shulman, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of New England said that 52 anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts were reported to the organization in 2008, down from 95 in 2007.

Mintz called the organization after the crime and was advised to cooperate with the police in their investigation, which has been left open and with no suspects.

“We’ve been working on it since it happened, and will continue to work on it,” Acton police department’s Lt. Robert Parisi said.

While there is no evidence suggesting the age of the perpetrators, some, including Lopes assume it was kids pulling a prank. According to high school junior Lex Martin, who is a member of the No Place for Hate Committee, some young people use the swastika symbol to rebel but don’t know what it means.

If so, that’s no excuse, Mintz said. If the crime was done in ignorance, he wants the people involved to know how serious an assault it represented.

“The power of that symbol represents not only bias, but extreme hatred that led to mass murder,” Mintz said.

Standing together, Acton area residents have made their message clear.

“There is simply no place for hate in this community,” Moore said.



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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security

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