As a rabbi, I’m used to the unexpected call in the middle of the night. The news is usually bad: a congregant has died, been hospitalized, or is otherwise in need to comfort and support.
Last week, I was awakened by a call that was not only unexpected, but immediately soul-shattering: a large swastika – that most profoundly gruesome and overt symbol of hatred against the Jewish people – had been painted on our synagogue’s front door.
The news was jarring. A swastika? In Midtown Manhattan? In the diverse “melting pot” that is New York City? It’s hard to reconcile with this level of hatred existing in someone’s heart. Or, in this particular case, in the hearts of the three masked individuals recorded by security cameras.
In reality, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only a few months ago, the NYPD reported that anti-Semitic crimes have nearly doubled in the past year, and even casual observation would indicate anti-Jewish rhetoric is rising. Arguably, I should have almost expected this. But, I didn’t. And the pre-dawn phone call awakened me both physically and spiritually.
What I experienced after the swastika incident will stay with me forever, and serves as a crucial reminder of the power of community to ignite goodness in the face of evil.
My immediate concerns were practical ones: Had anyone been hurt? (They were not.) Had the synagogue been otherwise damaged? (It had not.) Was it safe and advisable to open the synagogue for all normal activities? (We chose to do so.)
I then turned my attention to informing and healing our community. What I experienced over the following hours and days will stay with me forever, and serves as a crucial reminder of the power of community to ignite goodness in the face of evil. In fact, my greatest hopes and beliefs for humanity were re-affirmed.
I was stunned by the immediate response from dozens, if not hundreds, of civic, law-enforcement, political and spiritual leaders, from New York as well as from around the country and even from around the world. I’m reluctant to single out any individual, but three stand out – Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan personally called a member of our congregation with words of support; an imam reached out from Morocco to pledge his solidarity, as well as the solidarity of the interfaith group of religious leaders he was traveling with; and a congregant from well before my time, our first-ever bar mitzvah, called to share how the vandalism had affected him.
I learned and re-learned so many invaluable lessons as a result of this horrible experience. First, isolated acts of hate aren’t truly isolated; they affect us all.
Hatred and ignorance tend to grab the headlines, and to be sure they can’t be eradicated overnight. In fact, as I write this, I mourn with all New Yorkers at the horrific loss of life due to the terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. But there’s far more good than evil in the world, which we too often fail to recognize or embrace.
The love and support we received from all corners of our community were overwhelming; the key is to build those bridges, and those bonds of mutual trust, when times are good. This doesn’t always come naturally. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised with intention.
This graffiti could have caused us to feel deep isolation, but instead we turned the incident on its head and felt within a deep embrace of our community. At our first evening service after hatred had literally landed at our doorstep, Jews and non-Jews together sang “Hine Ma Tov,” with its lyrics that translate to, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
I’ve always believed this. An act of hatred has led me to treasure it even more dearly, and to wish it for all of us.
Rachel Ain is the rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.