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A swastika in Portland

Published: February 13, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.


 

 

On Jan. 30, a dozen people attacked the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Venezuela, throwing Torah scrolls, damaging others, and leaving graffiti on the walls. The synagogue security guards were held at gunpoint. The synagogue was left with messages of “Jews get out” and “out, death to all” on its walls.

On the very same day, a swastika was discovered along with graffiti at Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh, Portland, Maine’s oldest orthodox synagogue. Only a weekend before that, a group of students from the Brandeis’Orthodox Organization spent a retreat in Portland at that very synagogue. We were among the group of thirty-eight students who attended. Together with Jewish college students from the Maine area along with Portland natives, we celebrated the Sabbath together, singing, sharing words of Torah, enjoying each other’s company in a most welcoming community.

We can’t help but wonder what the correlation between these two events might be, if any. The atmosphere in Venezuela seems ripe for Anti-Semitism. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, flaunts his friendship with the infamous Iranian president, who has expressed his desire to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. This president who denounced the anti-Semitic attack on Jan. 30 is the same person who only a few years earlier gave a speech in which he said, “Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ…took all the world’s wealth for themselves.” To be blunt, in Venezuela, where the leadership is so radical, it seems all the more likely for there to be an Anti-Semitic attack such as the one Tiferet Israel experienced last week.

What then is a rational conclusion for the attack on Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, Maine? We would like to be able to answer that question, but how can we ever explain the fact that an act of Anti-Semitism took place in an American city where we had felt so comfortable and welcome? Surely the blame can’t be deflected onto the environment set forth by the state of Maine’s political leadership. Portland Jews, like any other religious group, enjoy the same liberties and freedoms accorded to all religious groups in the United States.

Chavez inevitably adds to a culture of hate with his political affiliations, actions and statements. However, each of us adds to a culture of hate when we keep silent when such events occur. The very next day after the attack in Maine, Akiva Hertzfeld, the vibrant and young rabbi of Portland’s Shaarey Tephiloh synagogue, held a morning meeting, where he invited all members of the community to discuss the community’s response to the recent attack. He broke the silence and the Portland community stood with him. We can’t afford to live in deluded worlds that understand anti-Semitism as an unfortunate reality of the past; it is present, with perpetrators expressing the old hatred in new and old ways. It takes zero tolerance for hate crime offenders coupled with rallies against hate crimes such as the one experienced in Portland to confront these acts.

During Shabbat afternoon when we were at the synagogue, Rabbi Hertzfeld told us that Portland had once been considered the Vilna of Maine. We thought about that, and what an interesting comparison that was to make. Portland, with its charming streets, beautiful port, friendly fisherman, and nautical culture did not seem anything like the Lithuanian city that had once been the bastion of Jewish learning and culture in Europe. Vilna was a place filled with thousands of Jews devoted to Torah, Judaism, and Judaic culture. Portland was beautiful, but the Vilna of Maine?

As Shabbat went on, we began to realize that although we were not in Vilna, Lithuania, we were in a unique and special community. Perhaps some of the Jewish melodies that we sang were some of the same ones that Jews from an earlier time sang in Vilna. The prayers that we said on Friday night and Shabbat day were the same ones said in the synagogues in Vilna. And the warmth of the community, the joy and beauty of Shabbat, and the remembrance and appreciation of the past and present in that synagogue in Portland made us think that this Shabbat experience shared some similarities with what Jews had experienced in Vilna each week.

However, there is another aspect of Vilna that always stands out in our minds: the rampant anti-Semitism that the Jews suffered. The fact that we could understand why Portland was once considered the Vilna of Maine speaks of the incredibly uplifting and unique Shabbat that we experienced there. However, the cowardly act of anti-Semitism that was perpetrated in Portland last weekend, the likes of which one would only expect to read about in European history or Hamas textbooks, forces us to re-think the phrase, “The Vilna of Maine.” We don’t want the comparison to extend that far.

Anti-Semitism exists in Portland, Maine, in a town only two hours away from our Brandeis campus, and anti-Semitism exists in Caracas, Venezuela, albeit with different political environments and backgrounds. Both these synagogues were the oldest of their kind, both open their doors daily for prayer and serve as a place of gathering for their communities. Both were targeted because they were Jewish institutions.

A contingent of Brandeis students will be heading back to the Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue in Portland for a second weekend to express our solidarity with the community that hosted us so graciously. Again, we will pray loudly, sing until late at night, share words of Torah, and enjoy each other’s company. If these are our ideals, let us share them: No house of worship should have to face the degradation these pioneering synagogues faced. No Jew should ever have to see a swastika sprayed on her or his synagogue.