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As Purim approaches, antisemitic attacks leave Chicago neighborhood on edge

When an Orthodox husband and wife and their two children approached the entrance to B’nai Reuven, a Chabad-Lubovitch shul in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, last Shabbat, their greeter was an armed security guard.

“What has been happening here we’ve seen before,” said the husband, Avram, who refused to give his last name, citing concerns for his family’s safety, “and it won’t prevent us from doing as we do.”

What has been happening is a spike in antisemitic incidents in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, leading to a sense of unease and heightened security as the festive holiday of Purim approaches.

The suspect screamed, “All of you should be killed,” to a group of Jewish students. Courtesy of Chicago Police Department

“Purim is supposed to be a celebration,” said Bruce Robbins, 70, a local who has guided the Lillstreet Art Center in nearby Ravenswood for five decades. “The past few weeks have made people cautious.”

Other Jewish temples and schools on Devon Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, also have armed guards like Chabad, as well as guards patrolling fenced parking lots.

Meanwhile, Chicago Police Department SUVs are easily visible on their regularly scheduled patrols through the neighborhood since the traffic on Saturdays is light.

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The problems started barely two weeks into the new year, Jan. 13. when an unarmed man approached students and a teacher outside Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi Academy and yelled, “all of you should be killed” as he passed by on the sidewalk. The students dashed into their building.

On Jan. 29, two days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, a kosher market and a nearby kosher bakery were vandalized.

The next day, a Sunday, found yellow swastikas spray-painted on the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, or F.R.E.E., synagogue and a nearby private Jewish high school. Later that night, only blocks away, an Orthodox Jewish man was jumped and beaten on his way to a different shul, where he reported the attack.

Chicago police showed up the next day with Mayor Lori Lightfoot for a press conference announcing the arrest of the man who sprayed the swastikas, 39-year-old Shahid Hussain, now being held on a $250,000 bond on four counts of hate crimes and criminal damage.

A Chicago Police Department officer and member of F.R.E.E. synagogue confer following the vandalism.

A Chicago Police Department officer and member of F.R.E.E. synagogue confer following the vandalism. Courtesy of ABC7 Chicago

Police came back again the next day to investigate the harassment of a man by three persons as he parked his car at a shul, and later smashed some of the car’s windows.

During 2021 and so far in 2022 the Anti-Defamation League tracker counted nine specifically antisemitic incidents within Chicago, five in West Rogers Park in three months. Statewide, Illinois saw a 350% increase in antisemitic incidents between 2016 and 2020, contributing to a sense of unease.

“What makes the situation in West Rogers Park unique is the number of incidents in a short period of time,” said David Goldenberg, ADL midwest regional director. “And the Orthodox are targeted disproportionately.”

Goldenberg said an area like West Rogers Park is a “flash point” because its residents are more visibly Jewish.

The surge of events in the neighborhood prompted Yinam Cohen, Israel’s consul general in the Midwest, to join Deborah Silverstein, the local Chicago City Council member, to visit each incident site on Feb. 14. Cohen told the assembled media he was there to “deliver the message that the consulate is not just a representative of Israel, but also a part of the community.”

West Rogers Park is a densely-populated, diverse neighborhood of approximately 77,000 people,with a large, increasingly Orthodox, Jewish population. There are a dozen or more private Jewish day and high schools and some 30 synagoguesfrom Reform to Orthodox.

Devon Avenue is the vibrant expression of the neighborhood’s diversity. Restaurants offer cuisines from India, Pakistan, Nepal, China, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, including the halal Burger Boys.

But it’s been the Jewish businesses and institutions facing the attacks.

Whatever may come for West Rogers Park as Purim approaches, Silverstein said the neighborhood is ready. Having represented the area for 11 years, she can recall when shuls, churches, and mosques disregarded security.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “it’s a necessary practice today. But the community is positively together against hate.”

She credited the Chicago Police Department with its response as well.

Vandals sprayed swastikas on the F.R.E.E. synagogue  on Jan. 30

Vandals sprayed swastikas on the F.R.E.E. synagogue on Jan. 30 Courtesy of ABC7 Chicago

“Whether it’s Shabbos or any other holiday of any kind,” she said, “we have extra police patrols. They’re visible, they know the community, and they’re responsive.”

To Bruce Robbins, the increased security and the attacks that make it necessary are discouraging signs of the times.

“I may not be going to temple for Purim,” he said, “but some of my neighbors are. They shouldn’t feel threatened while expressing who they are and what they believe.”

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