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Jews in Georgia, Indiana Concerned over Implications of Anti-semitic Activity

March 5, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

— A cross-burning outside a synagogue building under construction in an Atlanta, Ga. suburb Feb. 20 and the desecration of a synagogue in Evansville, Ind. by vandals two days later, has aroused serious concern in both communities and among Jews generally, less for the damage done, than over the implications of the anti-Semitic acts.

According to Seth Eisenberg, editor of Community, a Jewish publication in Louisville, Ky., unidentified persons armed with red paint sprayed swastikas, "white power" and other racist slogans on the walls of the Adath B’nai Israel synagogue in Evansville, a town in southern Indiana with a Jewish population of 1200. The incident occurred in the early hours of Feb. 22. Children reporting for Sunday school classes at the synagogue were confronted with the hate messages.

According to Alan Shovers, president of the Evansville congregation, it was the second incident of its type in the past 18 months. It differed from the first in that it was not followed by hate letters and telephone calls, he said. Three days later, the home of Rabbi Michael Herzbrun, spiritual leader of the congregation, was ransacked by what police called "professional burglars" who did damage estimated at $10,000.

Bambi Levy, writing in The Southern Israelite of Atlanta, reported that the cross-burning at Beth Shalom synagogue occurred in full view as over 75 members of the congregation, including children who were attending special Friday evening services at an elementary school across the street.

A three-foot high cross made of planking and fabric and held together by a coathanger was ignited on the front lawn of the unfinished synagogue. The blaze was put out by congregation members with fire extinguishers before the fire department arrived, Levy reported.


The incident created a new sense of solidarity among the shocked congregants who expressed their determination "not to run." But sharply differing views emerged, according to Levy, as to the motivations of the vandals and how the Jewish community should respond. The basic difference was whether the cross-burning was an isolated incident or a manifestation of a more ominous trend.

Rabbi Donald Peterman of Congregation Beth Shalom was quoted as saying, "I’ve never doubted that anti-Semitism was on the rise. I think we are going to see more and more related incidents. We live in a very dangerous climate. Overt anti-Semitism is becoming stronger… This burning was meant to scare us, it was a visual message that we are not wanted…"


But Stuart Lewengrub, regional director of the Anti-Deformation League of B’nai B’rith, did not see the incident as a massive movement or as a reason for panic. "At some point in life some Jewish institution receives some form of harassment," he stated. According to Levy, he attributed the cross-burning to troubled economic times. "Jews have always been the scapegoat in troubled periods," he observed. He demanded, however, that the incident be thoroughly investigated, the culprits apprehended and prosecuted "like any other common criminal."

Similar views were expressed by William Gralnick, Southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee. When Jews expand into the suburbs, so will prejudice, he said. "When there is a physical Jewish structure in a suburban neighborhood, the community can’t ignore it like they might if there were one or two Jewish families living nearby. A synagogue is visually there, it doesn’t go away," Gralnick said.

One of the immediate concerns of the Beth Shalom congregants was over the effects the cross-burning had on their children. The 20 youngsters who witnessed it were "terror stricken," according to one member of the congregation.


Similar concern was expressed in Evansville. "I don’t know if the children fully understood what happened," Shovers said according to Eisenberg’s account. "It’s a tough issue to deal with, but we have a great deal of encouragement and sympathy from a large number of friends in the neighborhood."

Mayor Michael Vendeveer of Evansville reacted strongly. "This is the kind of activity our community doesn’t want to tolerate. Its unacceptable," he said. He added, "My overall concern is that when the community hears of this type of thing and sees swastikas painted on a building, most people are very much concerned. There is no evidence of any kind of anti-Semitism group here. Its a sporadic kind of thing and is not reflecting an organized element in the community."

The Atlanta incident also drew expressions of sympathy and outrage from community leaders of all faiths. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dr. Donald Newby, executive director of the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, called on all citizens to condemn cross-burning.

"We’re deeply disturbed and angered by the outrageous act of cross-burning at the Beth Shalom site," he said. "From a Christian viewpoint, we must no longer tolerate such overt symbols of racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism."

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