Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus, is spiritual leader of Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, ME. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One quiet Friday morning in the middle of winter in Maine, I tramped through the snow and got to synagogue at exactly 10 a.m., which is when I usually open for business in the wintertime. I was in for a shock, however, when I arrived that day. Someone had painted a swastika on the sign outside my shul. I rubbed my eyes and couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a real swastika smack in the middle of my shul’s welcome sign.
I live in a peaceful residential neighborhood in a liberal town—Portland, Maine—and I couldn’t fathom who would do such a thing, and in such cold weather! It couldn’t be any of my neighbors, who were all very nice, so it had to be some nogoodnik, a drunk or some crazy person, who was just passing through the neighborhood.
Still, I could not ignore the swastika, and I was faced with the problem of how to respond to it. I could take it down as quickly as possible and thereby blot it out from existence, or I could respond to it in a dramatically different way and draw attention to it. I looked down the street and saw a very little 94-year-old woman, Lillian, who volunteers at the synagogue on Friday mornings, trudging up the icy street with her walker. I thought to myself that there was no way that I was going to remove the swastika with just the two of us, me and the little old lady, as witnesses to this evil image.
I called my brother in D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who has served as the Vice President of Amcha, an organization that is dedicated to “raising a voice of conscience on behalf of endangered Jews.” My brother advised me to make this into an educational event by inviting the local religious leaders and the media to wipe away the swastika that Sunday.
I called some people in the shul, and we did that. The local television stations came and covered the story of the swastika on my shul. The newspapers sent reporters to cover the story. And then on that Sunday, the mayor and hundreds of others came out to protest hatred of all kinds.
Even after the successful protest, I wondered whether it was worthwhile to draw attention to what appeared to be a single act of vandalism. Some said that the publicity would only lead to copycat vandalism and more anti-Semitism. However, after the publicity surrounding the rally at my shul, I was contacted by teachers in Maine and was asked to speak to schoolchildren about the Nazis and about anti-Semitism. After speaking to the students, I felt validated in having made the decision to draw attention to the swastika.
My experience with this one swastika has taught me a great deal. I have learned through this single experience of hatred how much it can hurt to be attacked. It hurts even more than I may be willing to admit to myself, but it strengthened me when people called to express concern and when the community showed its support. The rally also strengthened others in the community, churches and synagogues in the region, who for many different reasons expressed gratitude to our shul for publicizing the vandalism.
By drawing attention to this act of hatred, I was able to educate many others about the Holocaust and about the importance of preventing hatred of all kinds. I initially thought that if I removed the swastika right away that that would blot it out forever. It turned out that by drawing attention to the swastika, I did more to blot it out from memory than if I would have erased it right away. By publicizing that my shul was attacked, I allowed others to see that we were vulnerable, and many people became involved in the effort of erasing the message of the swastika and that of those who attack the weak and vulnerable.