The telephone woke me at 5:00 a.m. It was the police -– never a good omen. But this wasn’t about family or property, it was my synagogue.
“Graffiti,” the cop told me. “In black spray paint. All along the outside wall. You better get down here, Rabbi.”
I put on my glasses, sat up in bed, blinked away the fog. He called me “rabbi,” but that wasn’t yet true. It was my senior year at JTS, twenty-seven years ago, and I was serving as student rabbi to a small congregation in northern New Jersey. “I’ll be right there,” I said. “But what kind of graffiti?”
He cleared his throat, paused. “Nazi stuff. Swastikas. A little more than that. You’ll see when you get here.”
It was more than that. The sentence “Death to the Jews” in three-foot letters had been scrawled twice along the white stucco wall facing the street. Smaller swastikas, maybe a dozen, floated among the letters, like ghastly decorations. And above the display: four pairs of twin lightning bolts – a symbol that at the time I didn’t recognize.
“Shutzstaffel,” the president of the congregation said, looking up. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, he was waiting for me in front of the building. The police had woken him up also. “The symbol of the SS. My father told me.” I nodded. His father had served in World War II. A young policeman walked over. “Probably adults, not kids,” he told us. “Most teenagers don’t know about the twin lightning symbol. Handwriting looks adult, and you can see yourself the perpetrator had to be at least 6 feet tall.” We stared, speechless. Adults? I was thinking demons. The cop shrugged. “Probably skinheads. We’ve got a few in the area. We’ll check it out. You might want to make some calls.” He walked away, leaving his card.
“That’s a good idea,” the president told me. “Let’s make the calls.”
I was still in shock, not fully awake. I felt hopelessly young, out of my depth. “Call who?” The ADL, I thought? JDL? FBI? My mom?
“Congregants,” he said. “Right now, before minyan.”
I nodded. Four of the ten early minyan regulars were Holocaust survivors. One had the famous tattoo on his arm; it was the first thing he showed when we met. I needed to call him first. The president had another idea. “And call the local churches. Let them know what happened. In our town.”
That turned out to be the most interesting, inspiring, disturbing and ultimately consequential experience of the whole ordeal. I took out the yellow pages (pre-Internet days), and called every local priest and minister. The responses ranged from outrage to tears to loving sympathy to indifference and irritation (“Why would you call me?” one guy asked. “Did you think I did it?”).
One minister took charge. “I’ll be over there in an hour,” he said. “I’ll bring some kids, other volunteers. And white paint. We’ll take care of this. This is our town.”
But I wasn’t ready for them to paint over the wall so quickly. I tried to stop him, but he’d hung up. So I grabbed my camera and ran back to the synagogue. I wanted to document the outrage. But the press beat me to it. Photographers from the New York and New Jersey newspapers crowded the lawn in front of the wall, along with two film crews. We’d be on the front pages the next day.
Within an hour church volunteers, mostly teenage boys, arrived with buckets, brushes, ladders, soap and white paint. By this time, word had spread and dozens of my congregants from the small community arrived. We watched as the non-Jews erased the nightmare. I felt a strange ambivalence seeing the ugly black letters fade to white. There’s something too easy, I thought, about painting it over, cleaning up the mess, starting again with a whiter wall. I should have made them wait a day, I thought. Let the town see it.
But there was a deeper misgiving, one I couldn’t fully articulate back then. As I think about the incident now, I have an understanding of the reservations some Jews have expressed about Muslims raising money for desecrated Jewish cemeteries. It’s not just the politics of Jew vs. Muslim. It’s the feeling – not helpful, but natural – that when your community is under attack, you close ranks – the sense that, given our history, our wounds, you can’t trust outsiders, that, wrongly, unfairly, but inevitably, you see the vague outlines of perpetrator in every non-Jew.
The skinheads (it turned out to be skinheads) vandalized the synagogue on Thursday night. The next evening, erev Shabbat, the synagogue was full. After services, we sang Kol Ha’olam Kulo –- the whole world is a narrow bridge, but the key is not to be afraid. I joked with the president that we should spray-paint the synagogue every Friday – look what it’s done for our numbers! Indeed, the following week, we were back to our small group of regulars.
And the incident faded from my memory. Until very recently I never thought of it as a particularly important moment in my career. I was busy, ambitious, and on the move. I’d just gotten married and was eager to build a life, a career beyond this small New Jersey synagogue. And I was convinced that the main challenge facing American Jews wasn’t painting over swastikas, it was getting more Jews to care. That Friday night, I’d chanted “the main thing is not to be afraid,” but the fact is I wasn’t afraid. At least, I don’t think I was.
Now I’m not so sure. I’m replaying the memory, and some of the old, spooky feelings are leaking through. Suspicion. Fear. And a sense that the world really is very narrow bridge.
This story "27 Years Ago, My Synagogue Was Vandalized By Skinheads — Here’s What I’ve Learned Since Then." was written by Philip Graubart.