Saturday, June 06, 2020

After motzei Shabbat’s horrific attacks on a Chanukah celebration in Monsey, New York, a heightened wave of shock, fear and vulnerability swept through the Highland Park/Edison Jewish community. The following day, after shacharit, people learned that a troubling incident had occurred in their own community. Members of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park noticed that strange graffiti, replete with smiley faces, the numbers “666” and “777,” the phrase “AH, they’re coming,” “Hello, good afternoon,” and other words and symbols were spray-painted on a tree outside the synagogue, on sections of sidewalk near a side entrance, and on select squares of sidewalk within a one-block radius of the shul.

Members of the shul promptly reported the defacements to the Highland Park Police and shared pictures of the graffiti with others. A few community members took to Facebook and sought to decode the meaning of the numbers and phrase, “AH they’re coming,” seeing clear evidence of anti-Semitism in them.

By the day’s end, the shul’s rav, Rabbi Steven Miodownik, its president, Josh Ostrin and security chair Harry Glazer sent an email to the congregation to sum up the day’s events: “As many of you have learned today, Ahavas Achim was targeted last night by a vandal who sprayed disturbing messages on the sidewalk and trees on three sides of the building. Upon discovery of the graffiti, Highland Park Police were immediately on the scene and have begun an investigation in order to find the perpetrator, including reviewing our security camera footage and interviewing neighbors. Detectives from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office were also at the shul today conducting the investigation, which is being treated as a bias crime. The Department of Homeland Security has also been included in this process. We have been in continuous touch with the mayor, police chief and other officials throughout the day and are being kept apprised of the investigation.

On Monday morning, the mayor of Highland Park, who had viewed the graffiti personally the day before and sensed the anxiety rising in the community, organized an open public forum that night to address recent incidents of bias in the community. With less than 12 hours’ notice, the auditorium at the elementary school was packed with concerned community members.

The mayor enlisted Rabbi Miodownik, Highland Park Police Chief Rick Abrams, Middlesex County Prosecutor Christopher L.C. Kuberiet, NJ Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, a representative of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Protection, and others to speak at the forum. And she invited residents to ask questions or make comments.

The mayor opened the forum by commenting: “Any graffiti sprayed on or near a synagogue, or any house of worship, is, at the least, a blatant act of disrespect of that faith community. Our police have investigated the scene and began interviewing neighbors. … Let me stress one thing. It is perfectly reasonable, and prudent, for us to be hyper-vigilant about anti-Semitism in our town. Despite what the signs say around town, let’s be real—no town is without hatred. It is, tragically, part of the human condition in today’s America. There is anti-Semitism in our midst.”

“What makes us exceptional is that we also have leaders in our borough—on the Council, on the Human Relations Commission, in faith communities, and in other circles—who are viscerally opposed to anti-Semitism and willing to commit time and attention to forcefully push back against it. And we have a police department that has worked hard to build connections with, learn about the religious and cultural concerns of, and stay focused on the needs of the Jewish community. These are encouraging signs.”

Rabbi Miodownik spoke to the crowd, stating that “it is a dangerous time to be a Jew in America … we feel very vulnerable.” He called for increased New Jersey state security aid to local communities, to enable the police to place officers at each synagogue.

Highland Park Police Chief Rick Abrams spoke with the crowd and shared news that lifted everyone’s spirits: After a prompt investigation with the help of partner agencies, earlier that day the HPPD had charged two teenagers with criminal mischief for spray-painting the graffiti by the shul. He added that their investigation revealed that the teens “had no bias intent” in their actions, yet this finding “has no impact on how it was felt.”

Fifteen community members spoke in the public comments session. Some questioned the HP PD’s assessment that the teens who put up the graffiti had no biased intent, others asked about the penalties the teens will face, and some used the occasion to criticize the borough government for tabling a resolution to denounce anti-Semitism that included language about BDS this past Fall. A few asked about state resources and grant opportunities for security in synagogues.