Hundreds protest vandalism at synagogues

| UPDATED STORY

Several hundred people gathered in the parking lot of a Lincolnwood synagogue this afternoon to denounce the vandalism and hateful graffiti that struck several Jewish institutions across the Chicago area over the weekend, declaring in Hebrew, "The nation of Israel lives" in a defiant chant of unity against intolerance.

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The rally today at the Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation. (Tribune / E. Jason Wambsgans)

Elected officials and police joined the rally at the Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation, 7117 Crawford Ave., to urge vigilance, and to vow that those who scrawled "Death to Israel," and "Free Palestine" on its wall would be arrested and prosecuted.

"We're at the front a little bit, too," the congregation's rabbi, Joel Lehrfield, told the crowd, which was peppered with American and Israeli flags.

Referring to the graffiti behind him, he added, "It is an antisemitic statement against all Jews and decent human beings."

The rally was organized after vandals struck at least four synagogues and a Jewish school in Chicago and Lincolnwood early Saturday. The vandalism and rally come in the wake of Israeli airstrikes and the movement of ground forces into the Gaza Strip, which Israel says is meant to deter rocket attacks by Hamas.



The Chicago area has seen several protests the last two weeks, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli.

"We look to the cherubic faces of our sons and daughters, of our grandchildren, and have to say that hatred is a force that has not yet been vanquished," Rabbi Zvi Engel, of Congegation Or Torah, in Skokie, told the rally, which he helped organize.

"This touches a raw nerve," he said later. "You have to remember, in our congregations, there are people who remember this happening in Europe" as the Holocaust was beginning.

Among those in the crowd was Daniel Gutstein, a member of the Lincolnwood congegation, who brought his wife, Kari, and three sons, ages 2, 4, and 6.

"I want my boys to know that, whatever happens, we have a community," Daniel Gutstein said. "We are not alone in this world, no matter how many voices are arrayed against us."

"They want us to be afraid," Kari Gutstein added of the vandals. "We aren't."

Late Sunday morning, Talmud classes were underway at Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago, a rabbinical school and synagogue at 2756 W. Morse Ave. in Chicago. Spray painted on the brick wall facing California Avenue was the same phrase, "Death to Israel." The front door was a spiderweb of cracked glass, where rocks had been thrown.

"We continue on," said Rabbi Shalom Halberstam. "We do our thing. Studying. Learning. We didn't shut school down. The students are here, studying. We keep the faith."

Rabbi Moshe Perlstein of Lubavitch Mesivta said he told told congregants and students Saturday morning that challenges only push people to strive to be better.

"We're hoping this will make us stronger and better," Perlstein said.

Over at the Young Israel Congegation of West Rogers Park, 2706 W. Touhy Ave, head of security Stuart Singal was putting tarp over two smashed windows Sunday morning. The two bricks that were thrown through them early Saturday morning still lay on the floor of the social hall.

Rabbi Elisha Prero said synagogue officials believe the "Jewish response" to the defacement of their building was to make something positive of it.

They kept the two bricks thrown into their front window and after police told them the items would be useful in the investigation, officials decided they would use them in the cornerstone of the synagogue's library.

"We want to turn this disgusting act into a redemptive one," Prero said. "To take the attacks and use them to encourage our members and the community to be more Jewish, not less."

During services "I talked about how whether we like it or not, events in the Middle East are affecting us," Prero said.

"We were targeted for one reason and one reason only, and that's because we're Jews," he added. "That's unsettling."

Singal said a phone has been moved into the synagogue, in case a service ever gets disrupted and 911 must be called.  He also routinely watches through the window for suspicious people walking by.

"I'm somebody who has lived in Israel," he said. "I'm somebody who knows security. I just check for that."

But the synagogue has no formal guards, and despite one members' suggestion that a gun be kept withing reach along with the phone, Singal said it has not yet come to that.

"We can only do what we can do," he said.

"Death to Israel" was also spray-painted on a sign showing support for Israel in front of Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School, 3021 Devon Ave. No one from the school could be reached on Sunday.

At about 4 a.m. Saturday, the caretakers of the Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation were awakened by the sound of breaking glass, said Steve Kramer, the synagogue's head of security.

The caretakers reported seeing two men running from the temple, Kramer said.

"We're taking it seriously," Lincolnwood Police Lt. Mark Brines said.

Police believe the same people may also have vandalized at least three West Rogers Park synagogues. Lincolnwood and Chicago police are working with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force on the incidents, which are being investigated as hate crimes.

At Anshe Motele Congregation, 6520 N. California Ave., "Death to Israel" also was sprayed in orange paint on the front door, said Rabbi Alan Abramson.

"We're not going anywhere," the rabbi said. If people want to protest, "they don't have to deface a house of worship. ... Do it in a peaceful manner."

"Political protest has no place on the wall of a synagogue," Engel told the rally.

--Andrew L. Wang and Jeff Long
 
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