Interfaith Solidarity In Wake Of Swastika Attack


The two swastikas, barely visible to a passerby but resonating broadly throughout the city, were carved crudely into the front door of the Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West on Feb. 28. But they hit at the heart of a Reconstructionist synagogue a few blocks away.

Fourth U, as it’s called, is a home away from home for West End Synagogue, at 69th and Amsterdam. The congregation, marking its 30th year, has held its High Holy Days services in the soaring Victorian gothic sanctuary at Fourth Universalist, on 75th Street, for more than 25 years. So when West End’s rabbi, Marc Margolius, addressed a rededication service last Friday at the Unitarian-Universalist church — which drew participation from across the religious spectrum as well as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and journalist Bill Moyers — he felt comfortable, as if he were addressing his flock, and feeling the church’s pain as well.

“We hold our High Holy Day services here, the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, so I’m tempted to ask you to turn to page 51 for Kol Nidre,” Rabbi Margolius sweetly joked to a packed sanctuary. Then he sounded some of the themes that reverberated through many of the speeches in the 1 ½-hour-long ceremony, one that directly and indirectly called out Trump administration policies and rhetoric that may have emboldened the forces of hate to act in what has become a wave of anti-Semitism and overall hate crime since Election Day.

“On the eve of Shabbat,” Rabbi Margolius said, “we stand with our brothers and sisters.” He said at fraught times like these, “We have to remember Amalek,” a reference to the ancient tribe that set upon the weakest Israelites as they were fleeing Egypt. “He attacked the most vulnerable and is the archetype of cruelty. It’s the shadow within each of us that takes root in hatred and fear, and demonizes the other.”

The rabbi concluded, “We must meet hatred by amplifying love.” And he quoted Elie Wiesel, “In a time of war, this is the time to love. An act of love may tip the balance.”

While the NYPD is investigating the swastika vandalism as a hate crime, the motivation of the perpetrators remains unknown. (There have been no arrests in the case and the church did not have security cameras to capture the attack.) Did the vandals know that West End Synagogue shares the sanctuary on the holiest days in the Jewish calendar? Did they know that Fourth Universalist has proclaimed itself a sanctuary congregation and so is deeply enmeshed in the polarizing immigration debate? A Black Lives Matter sign is prominently placed outside the church. Was that a motivating factor for the vandals? One of the swastikas was framed on the top and bottom with the phrase “Race Office,” one associated with Hitler’s Third Reich. Was white supremacy a motivation?

The rabbi concluded, “We must meet hatred by amplifying love.” And he quoted Elie Wiesel, “In a time of war, this is the time to love. An act of love may tip the balance.”

In the absence of a clear motivation, speakers suggested that something is in the air these days, something that is leading to a 94 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents here since the beginning of the year.

The vandals “obviously felt OK to paint swastikas” on a house of worship, Nadler said. “People are feeling freer to express evil thoughts — there has been an increase in attacks on Jews, Muslims, immigrants. It’s all part of an ugly tradition.”

Nadler, who represents a wide swath of the Upper West Side in Congress, suggested that “we must invoke better traditions” in the fight against hate. He cited the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. “Our country has always been about an expanded understanding of what ‘all men are created equal’ means. What we’re seeing now is an attack on that.”

As for the Bible, Nadler pointed out that the most cited commandment, noted 36 times in the Torah, “is to not oppress the stranger. How are we doing on that? This land should be a haven for that.” He cited the recent comments of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly about a possible policy of separating parents from their young children at the southern border. “It’s an inhuman act,” Nadler said. “We should have shame for this country.”

State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal cited a personal connection to the swastika attack, saying her family fled Germany during the Holocaust, landing on an ever-tolerant Upper West Side. “The etching of a swastika feels like an etching into my own lifeblood.”

Community organizer and immigrant rights activist Onleilove Alston connected the hatred that nearly led to the destruction of the Jews in the Purim story to that which led to the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls, to the killings by an avowed white supremacist at the AME church in Charleston, to the swastikas on the Fourth U door. Upper West Side City Council member Helen Rosenthal hit President Trump head-on, saying that his administration has “created a space for hateful people that have always been there.” But just as there is “an inevitability of hate, there is also an inevitability of those who stand up to fight it.”

Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem called out the “elephant in the room — the radicalization of white male Christian Americans.” Mayor de Blasio’s senior community liaison, Jonathan Soto, cited several of the seven principles guiding the Unitarian-Universalist faith as arguments against “the federal government’s muscular policy that seeks to crush the vulnerable.” In saying that there was “a silver lining in these unnerving times,” Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, reached back to George Washington’s letter to the Colonial Jewish community of Newport, R.I., which spoke eloquently of the new country’s religious tolerance. “Everyone is welcome” in America, she paraphrased.

“Empathy is dead in Washington today,” Moyers declared. “But with our moral imaginations we have to see the future we want and strive to bring it about.”

Moyers, the former press secretary for President Johnson, a longtime PBS host and an ordained Baptist minister who speaks with a moral voice on issues at the intersection of religion and politics, wrapped up the ceremony in often preacherly tones. “In these dangerous times, our secret is soul,” he said. Moyers described Fourth Universalist — bridging as it does the Jewish prophetic tradition of social justice, the idea of Christian love and the Enlightenment virtues of science and reason — as having what he said the Baptists call “‘soul freedom.’ This is a place to attack if your mind is closed.”

At a current moment when “anti-Semitism and white nationalism are being embraced, and the dominant ideology in Washington is Christian white male supremacy,” Moyers sought guidance in Shakespeare and in Judaism. “Lear on the heath asks the blind Gloucester, ‘How do you see the world?’ ‘I see it feelingly,’ the old man responds.

“Empathy is dead in Washington today,” Moyers declared. “But with our moral imaginations we have to see the future we want and strive to bring it about.” And he cited the Jewish concept of chochma, the wisdom to see the potential in things, as a roadmap.

With the two swastikas still on the door — rubbed away yet faintly visible — Fourth Universalist and its wide community of supporters rededicated themselves to seeing that future, that potential, however elusive they may seem.