The projectile that slammed into an Indiana synagogue last weekend didn’t do much physical damage. A photo of the hole in the glass window of a synagogue classroom shows no more than a pockmark in the glass.
The intent, however, was to terrify, according to the synagogue’s rabbi. And it comes at a time when incidents targeting minority religions in the small Indiana city of Evansville are on the rise.
Just days earlier, an unidentified man barged into a nearby Islamic center, harassed women preparing food in the center’s kitchen and boasted that he had been leaving pork outside the center’s door.
“These things have increased in intensity and frequency,” said Dr. Mohammad Hussain, a lay leader at the Islamic Center of Evansville, a city of 100,000 near the borders of Kentucky and Illinois. He said that the incident at the center last week had left members frightened, but that it wasn’t the only time in recent months that members of his community have faced harassment. He told the Forward that women have been shouted at outside the center, and that one young law student visiting from out of town was approached at a Wal-Mart and told to “go back to your country.”
The incidents come as communities across the United States and Canada face what seems to be an apparent wave of attacks on minority religious sites, including a rash of bomb threats to Jewish centers, a deadly shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, an arson attack on a mosque in Texas, and vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Pennsylvania.
In Evansville a few months ago, someone scrawled racist threats on an African-American church across town.
Amid the rash of attacks on minority religious sites, local police have stepped up patrols. Sgt Jason Cullum of the Evansville Police said that officers are now regularly patrolling the city’s Jewish cemeteries, something that hadn’t previously been a part of their routine.
“Evansville is a wonderful community,” Hussain said. “There is a large majority of people who are very nice and wonderful, and there are obviously some bad apples. It’s really hard to tell if this is something that’s been done schematically or it’s just random incidents.”
Rabbi Gary Mazo, spiritual leader of Evansville’s Temple Adath B’nai Israel, the synagogue victimized in the recent vandalism, said that the incidents in Evansville were local manifestations of the nationwide trend.
“I think it’s just a product of living in a society where hatred and bigotry have been given a voice that’s larger than life, and people feel emboldened and empowered to act on the hatred, the bigotry,” he said. “Anyone who is a minority religion, culture, ethnicity is going to wind up on the receiving end. We hoped that nothing like this would ever happen here.”
And yet, it has. Religious groups in Evansville, which is also home to two universities, have engaged in robust interfaith dialogue for years. The synagogue and the Islamic center victimized in recent weeks have participated in an ongoing educational and cultural series with a nearby Presbyterian church, called “One God – One Community.”
Now, the pastor of that church, Kevin Fleming of Evansville’s First Presbyterian, said that the religious community is coming together in the wake of the attacks. “We have all responded,” Fleming said.
In a statement on Thursday, Bishop Charles C. Thompson of the Catholic Diocese of Evansville offered his support to the synagogue. ““I speak for the Catholic community across Southwest Indiana in condemning this hate crime and all acts like it – and in offering prayers for everyone involved,” he said.
Mazo said that since the synagogue damage was discovered, non-Jewish clergy friends have dropped by the synagogue every day. He expects a big crowd of non-Jewish supporters for Friday night services this week.
“I think this place is going to be packed,” he said.
Police say that the incidents remain under investigation. Cullum said initial evidence suggested that the projectile fired at the synagogue was not a bullet, but rather a pellet shot from a bb gun. He said there was no indication that the incidents are connected.
Hussain, meanwhile, said that while he appreciated President Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitic bomb threats and cemetery desecrations. But he said he hoped for more. “I think it needs to be much more forceful and much more clear,” he said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.