A crowd gathered Sunday morning at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Jonestown after a swastika with the word “shalom” below it was found drawn on a sign outside of the synagogue.
While members of the community, elected officials and Jewish communal leaders came together because of an unfortunate act of hatred, the event was one of solidarity and positivity in the face of ugliness.
“Love and unity will be stronger than any hate and any words of hate and any violence or any acts of terror or things that would try to instill fear,” B’nai Israel Rabbi Etan Mintz told the crowd before leading a singing of “Oseh Shalom” — a prayer for peace.
The swastika, drawn with a marker, appeared on the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Associated sign last week.
The crowd of more than 70, Mintz estimated, included Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and his Jewish community liaison Betsy Gardner, District 46 Del. Brooke Lierman, Councilmen Zeke Cohen (D-District 1) and Robert Stokes (D-District 12), Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Chai Posner, Baltimore Jewish Council executive director Howard Libit, Baltimore Police Capt. Jarron Jackson and Historic Jonestown president Lindsay Thompson.
Burg focused on the word “shalom” that was on the sign in his talk to the crowd.
“Shalom … is not about passivity. It’s not about simply standing by and allowing people to attack us and not responding,” he said. “Peace is only achieved when we come from a place of strength, when we come from a place of our sense of who we are and what we stand for. … And when we say ‘shalom,’ which of course we pray for and of course we want, what we mean is a shalom that each of us can stand together in strength, each of us with our sense of community and self-determination to be able to hold one another up against those who try to bring us down.”
The event was organized by B’nai Israel congregants Rick Gwynallen, Will Eastman and Adam Poliak Saturday night after Shabbat.
“It was a very powerful morning,” Mintz said.
Several speakers connected the act of vandalism to a larger picture given other hate incidents around the country such as the recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats to JCCs and Jewish institutions.
“When I first heard about this, I wish I could have said I was surprised, but events like this have started happening more and more often since the [presidential] election,” Lierman said. “It’s become really overwhelming.” She reminded the crowd that “love is a verb” and highlighted the importance of working for love every day.
Cohen spoke of personal historic context to underscore why the community needed to stand together.
“My great-grandmother came to this country from Austria. She, according to the family story, got on the last boat out of Europe, and the rest of my family perished in the Holocaust, mostly at Auschwitz. And she left to escape symbols like the one we saw over there, and she came to this country to build a better life and to be a part of the Jewish community in New York and in Brooklyn,” he said. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately, especially as we’ve seen so much hatred directed at our community, directed at the Muslim community, directed at the immigrant community.”
Cohen introduced a resolution at Monday’s City Council meeting to reaffirm Baltimore’s status as a “welcoming city,” which passed unanimously.
Among the attendees was Mount Washington resident Evan Serpick, who said it’s important not to allow acts of hatred to become normal, and the community must avoid an attitude of “this is just another bomb threat, another Sharpie … just wipe it off.”
“It’s really important when something like that happens to respond quickly, to immediately show up and say, ‘No, this is not normal. We’re going to use this to bring people together and move on,’” Serpick said.
Libit echoed that sentiment.
“No act of intolerance is acceptable regardless of size,” he said, noting that the event and the number of officials who turned out showed the strength of the community.
Like Lierman, Serpick connected the swastika to a certain climate in the country. “I think people are feeling more empowered to come out with [anti-Semitism and xenophobia], and it’s hard not to connect that to political discourse and social media and right up to the president.”
As Mintz told the JT, “It was a small symbol, but it was part of a larger context and more acts of hate.”
He noted that two doors down from his synagogue at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is a new exhibit about Auschwitz, adding extra poignancy to the incident. He encouraged people to take a few minutes to go inside and pray or meditate, and to go see the exhibit.
“It’s not just history — things that we remember from the past — but it’s still a part of living history.”
Hannah Monicken contributed to this report.