Vandalism at NJ temple was ‘hatred un-tethered,’ rabbi says
EVESHAM — There was so much to celebrate at Congregation Beth Tikvah last Friday that Rabbi Nathan Weiner said an act of apparent vandalism could have put a damper on the evening.
However, he said he hopes the events of that night will only serve to bring the community together.
Weiner said he got to the temple last Friday night ahead of the regular services looking forward to a night celebrating a couple preparing for marriage, and a sanctuary full of families. He found some of the temple's shingles torn off and and arranged on skylights on the roof, spelling out what he described as "racist and homophobic" words.
The rabbi said that while it was challenging to explain the presence of police cars and later fire trucks that were called to the temple to investigate, the services went on for what he described as a "pretty crazy evening."
"Most people came in and knew something was up, and I was trying to control it so that there wasn't hysteria, but so that people who needed to know knew what was going on in a managed and constructive way," he said.
Weiner said the timeline of when the vandalism occurred is not clear, but that there were people in the building throughout the day, and nobody reported anything unusual.
"A synogogue is supposed to be a sanctuary. We call it a sanctuary because it is a sanctuary. It's supposed to be a place of respite, a place of prayer, a place of community-building," he said. "When that space is violated with hate speech it's incredibly upsetting, upsetting and unsettling for the people that call this place of worship their home."
On Monday, Weiner said, he received calls of support from clergy of all denominations from around the area, as well as "congregants who are trying to make sense of what happened to the building that holds their beloved community." He called it a "holy challenge today."
What happened to the building could have been worse, but Weiner said he hopes the congregation can learn from it moving forward.
"It's business as usual and it's not," he said. "It's business as usual in the sense that we recommit ourselves to building community both within our individual faith community, and then with other people who are doing the work of building community."
He said events like the vandalism "tears away at the fiber of what makes a strong and tight knit community." Despite that, he said it will only inspire the congregation "redouble our efforts at making sure that in our community this is something that isn't tolerated."
Moving forward, he said, the congregation is working on ways to make sure there isn't more vandalism, or anything worse. In the past, he said, the temple staff would not lock the doors, but now only admitted guests can get into the building, which presents its own challenges for the temple's overall goals.
"We're in the business of being as accessible as we can," he said. "How do you hold being accessible as a space as you can be to people who are on their spiritual journey or a part of the community while trying to keep everyone safe?"
He called that balance a "tough challenge," but with other reports of anti-Semitic vandalism and the shooting reported at the church in Texas over the weekend, safety, even in a sanctuary, takes on a new level of importance.
"The idea that there are those that would think it's okay to desecrate or violate a place of worship is generally beyond reproach," he said.
The rabbi also said that the message the vandals decided to spread on the roof made it "unique," in that they did not use anti-Semitic wording.
"It just felt like hatred un-tethered and trying to find a place to let it live," he said. "It's bizarre."
As the temple prepares for services again this Friday, Weiner said, he hopes the events of the past week bring "people closer into community with one another and really sees the fullness and divinity that exists in every human being that walks the earth."
He also said he hopes it will inspire others to "work harder at building the type of communities that are free of racism and sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism, because when any one of these groups are oppressed, it affects us all."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com